Belgium enters fourth COVID-19 infection wave as cases jump

Lagging behind in vaccinations, Brussels begins jabbing shoppers

By Marine Strauss

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium's daily COVID-19 cases have jumped to the highest level in almost a year, prompting health experts to say that a fourth wave of infections has begun.

Data from the Sciensano health institute showed on Friday that the country registered nearly 6,500 new cases on Oct. 18. That is as many as on Nov. 10, 2020, a few days before the government imposed a second lockdown.

The seven-day daily average stood at more than 3,600, a rise of nearly 60% from the previous week.

The country of 11 million, home to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, has had one of the world's highest per capita COVID-19 mortality rates and is among a number of European nations seeing a jump in cases as winter arrives.

Belgium's coronavirus commissioner Pedro Falcon told a news conference that vaccines were able to prevent 70% of infections and 90% of hospital admissions, and the vast majority of people in hospital were unvaccinated.

The number of patients with COVID-19 in hospitals exceeded 1,000 for the first time since June, and nearly 100 new patients are being admitted a day, Sciensano said, a 53% increase from the previous week.

"The impact on hospital admissions and deaths is much more limited than in the first two waves due to the high vaccination rate," said virologist and Sciensano spokesman Steven Van Gucht.

More than 8.5 million people in Belgium have now been fully vaccinated, or 74% of its population.

The government is set to review its coronavirus measures on Oct. 29, although is not expected to announce a drastic tightening.

One possibility is that COVID passes, required for entry to cafes and gyms in Brussels and shortly in the southern region of Wallonia, could be extended to the whole of the country.

(Reporting by Marine Strauss @StraussMarine; editing by Philip Blenkinsop, William Maclean)