The Story from Northern Netherlands: To Test or Not to Test?

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Source: The Irish Times

By Naomi O’Leary 

According to the official Dutch count, there have been 4,795 coronavirus deaths in the Netherlands. This is an underestimate: it only includes people who tested positive, and mortality data suggests actual deaths are 40 per cent higher. It also disguises deep regional differences.

In the worst-hit region of North Brabant in the south, twice as many people died between March 16th and April 5th, 2020, than in the same period last year. But in the northern region of Groningen, home to a university city the size of Cork, deaths were just 4 per cent higher in the same period.

What can explain this stark difference in a country half the size of Ireland that is one of the most densely populated in the world?

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The man held partly responsible is Prof Alex Friedrich, a virologist and head of microbiology and infection control at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), the major hub of medical care in the northern Netherlands.

Friedrich announced on March 19th that the north was departing from national Dutch policy. While the public health agency would be restricting testing to only severe and priority cases, he announced the north would follow the World Health Organisation’s advice: “test test test”.

“In the Netherlands, in our country, they said that diagnostics is interesting for statistics but not important for the fight against the disease. There I strongly disagree,” Friedrich told The Irish Times.

The UMCG set up a test centre on its grounds, hired medical students for extra staff, and asked the local health authorities to direct people there for screening.

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In this day and age, understanding bacteria and viruses and developing vaccines are national security issues. In my view sizable part of every country’s defense budget should be spent in these pursuits rather than making tanks and other weapons.

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