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‘Coronavirus tsunami’ in Belgium threatens health care system

While the coronavirus surges again in the U.S., it is also raging in Europe -- and nowhere worse than Belgium, which is now the continent’s worst hot spot. The southern, French-speaking Wallonia region is being hit particularly hard. Special correspondent Lucy Hough reports from Liege, where intensive care beds are filling up and hospital admissions have been doubling every eight days.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While the coronavirus surges again here in the U.S., it is also coming back with a vengeance in Europe, and nowhere worse than in Belgium, which, as we reported, is now the hot spot of the continent.

    The Southern French-speaking Wallonia region is particularly hard-hit.

    Special correspondent Lucy Hough brings us this report from Liege.

  • Lucy Hough:

    It's a coronavirus tsunami, a crippling second wave that health officials say they can no longer control. The intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients in this hospital in Liege are full. Admissions have been doubling every eight days.

    The ventilators, monitors and glass isolation units are signs of a crisis worse than the first wave in the spring. If the pressure continues, doctors here say they may soon be forced to choose who receives lifesaving care.

  • Antoine Altdorfer (through translator):

    Where things stand right now, we're not having to make those choices. But if the wave keeps coming like this, we know we will have to.

    We're in constant dialogue with patients, being clear that we can't ensure everyone admitted to intensive care will make it through to rehabilitation. That's a reality we're already dealing with.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Wallonia, the Southern French-speaking region of Belgium, now has one of the highest rates of infection in the world, with one in every three tests coming back positive.

    From the start, Belgium has been vulnerable to the virus. It's densely populated, with high rates of cross-border travel. The near total relaxation of restrictions over the summer, combined with bad weather and the return of schools in the fall, have created a perfect storm.

    Months of preparation mean, for now, in hospitals like this one, there is enough protective equipment to go around. But there are critical shortages of people, shortages of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel to deal with the influx in COVID-19 patients.

    The situation has become so critical in the Wallonia region that some hospitals are asking doctors and nurses to keep working even if they have tested positive for the virus, as long as they are not displaying symptoms. It's to prevent the health care system from total collapse.

  • Phillipe Devos:

    We had 5 percent of nurses and doctors that were positive to coronavirus, but not sick. They didn't have COVID-19.

    And so we needed these 5 percent who are essential to treat all the patients we have. So, we decided to let them work. Otherwise, we'd have to refuse patients, and with all the consequence that it has.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Staff shortages are not limited to hospitals. With so many Belgians isolating with COVID-19, there are also reduced numbers of police officers on the streets and teachers in classrooms. Volunteers are being drafted in to fill the gaps.

    The testing system is overwhelmed, with only essential workers and symptomatic people able to access a test. Like neighboring France, Belgium has now introduced a new national lockdown, closing all nonessential businesses and limiting social contacts. But experts fear urgent action was needed earlier.

  • Steven Van Gucht:

    I think measures came a bit too late. That's clear. Otherwise, we wouldn't be in this position. The problem is, what we do now will only have an effect on the hospitals in 10, 12 days.

    But, within 10, 12 days, we also think we will be at the peak of hospital admissions. So, I think it is important that now we restrict all our contacts, so we don't add another layer of the patients on the expected peak.

  • Lucy Hough:

    But like elsewhere in Europe, there are signs of lockdown fatigue and rising anger towards national governments. Small demonstrations have taken place in Belgium, but have stopped short of the violence and unrest seen on the streets of Italy and Germany.

    For weeks, European governments have resisted full shutdowns. But the reality in hospitals like this one have left little choice. The scenes in Liege are a flashback to those in Lombardy, Northern Italy, at the start of this crisis, a health care system pushed to its limit.

    And, as the infection rate grows and the death toll continues to rise, nobody knows what the next few weeks will hold.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lucy Hough in Liege.

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