Belgian hospitals battle third COVID-19 wave as curbs poised to be eased

FILE PHOTO: Medical workers work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) where patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are treated at the Saint-Pierre clinic in Ottignies, Belgium, April 7, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

LIEGE/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Coronavirus infections are not dropping as fast as hoped in Belgium, pushing hospitals towards full capacity, health officials said on Friday, as government plans to ease a lockdown soon came under scrutiny two days after they were announced.

More than 3,000 COVID-19 patients are in hospital and 930 in intensive care units, data showed. Of the country's 2,000 ICU beds, 1,000 have been set aside for non-coronavirus cases.

"We are not at all on the downhill slide that we hoped to have in terms of infections," health agency spokesman Yves Van Laethem told a news conference.

The daily infection rate, currently at a seven-day average of 3,884, has inched down since the lockdown started in late March, but the percentage of positive test results is up.

At the Montlegia CHC clinic in Liege, head nurse Pol Grosjean said pressure was acute, with some 50% of ICUs occupied by COVID-19 patients.

He said he favoured remaining "very, very cautious" in terms of restrictions on movement and social interaction.

The government said on Wednesday that Belgians would be allowed to travel abroad from next Monday, non-essential shops would reopen on April 26, and bars and restaurants could resume service for outdoor consumption from May 8.

"I am fed up too, not being able to have five or 10 people round to the house and so on," Grosjean added. "But I think we have to be careful and there are many people who don't know what we're going through in hospitals

More than 23,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the country of 11 million people, one of the world's highest per capita fatality rates.

(Reporting by Yves Herman, Marine Strauss @StraussMarine; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and John Stonestreet)

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