The UK variant of the coronavirus has claimed the lives of three residents at a retirement home in northwestern Belgium and infected 111 people including 39 staff members, its director Jurgen Duyck told AFP on Sunday.
The cluster represents two-thirds of the residents of the De Groene Verte home in the western Flanders city of Houthulst near the border with France.
Belgium has suffered one of the worst per capita death rates in the world during the epidemic with its nursing homes representing more than half of overall deaths from the disease, according to the Public Health Institute.
Mayor Joris Hindryckx said the outbreak prompted a halt to “all social and sporting activities” in the town of around 10,000 people.
The source of the contamination is unknown, but the mayor said the infection must have been “indirect” as none of those testing positive was known to have travelled to Britain.
He said those infected must quarantine for 10 days instead of the usual seven.
But an epidemiologist urged a “full lockdown” in Houthulst and called for all inhabitants to be tested.
Writing in the daily Le Soir, Yves Coppieters said: “We have the foundations of a third wave of contaminations.”
Speaking to the Belgian TV station La Une, he noted: “If there is already a cluster of this intensity, there are sure to be others.”
Without blanket testing, “we won’t succeed against a variant that is a lot more contagious,” he warned.
On Friday, the spokesman of the Belgian health authorities, Yves Van Laethem, said there were already several dozen cases of both the British and the South African strains of the coronavirus in the country, adding that “other strains could emerge”.
He noted that the Pfizer vaccine, the one most widely used in Belgium, is effective against the two variant strains.
Residents of the Houthulst retirement home were set to be vaccinated against COVID-19 this week, but the programme was postponed because of the large number of COVID patients, Hindryckx said.
The elderly are the priority target in the vaccination campaign, which according to official figures had reached 17.26 percent of retirement home residents and staff by January 13 with the first dose of the vaccine, which is to be followed up by a second dose.
Belgian authorities said Saturday that a delay in delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses would not affect the vaccination of this segment of the population.
The country recorded 16.6 percent excess deaths last year attributed mainly to COVID-19.
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