Gastein 2020: EU Member States must work more closely in the fight against COVID-19, says ECDC chief

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of healthcare systems, but by gleaning valuable lessons from this experience we can become more resilient, explains Andrea Ammon.
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By Andrea Ammon

Andrea Ammon is Director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

01 Oct 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented public health emergency for Europe and the world. As of the end of September 2020, almost 31 million cases of COVID-19 infections have been reported worldwide, including close to one million deaths. Several EU Member States have also been heavily a­ffected.

This pandemic has highlighted the need for strong and resilient healthcare systems in order to protect them from becoming overwhelmed and in order to maintain basic and essential healthcare services. This vulnerability is something we witnessed acutely in the early months of the pandemic. In a rapid risk assessment carried out in April, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) highlighted six key elements that Member States need to have in place in order to protect their health systems.

This includes having a robust surveillance strategy that thoroughly monitors the intensity and geographical spread of the infection, measures the impact on healthcare systems, and measures the impact of mitigation and physical distancing measures. There must be an expanded testing capacity for early detection and isolation of cases, clinical management, protecting risk groups, assessing population immunity, and return-to-work strategies.

Other essential elements involve establishing a framework for contact tracing, based on extensive testing, active case finding, early detection of cases, isolation of cases, quarantine and follow-up of contacts. There must be sufficient healthcare capacity and resilience, including recovered general capacity (not related to COVID-19) and sufficient hospital and intensive care unit beds.

“A harmonised approach is of the utmost importance to create trust, assurance and consistency so that our citizens are able to adapt to a ‘new normal’ and can plan ahead”

Monitoring and estimating resource needs is also crucial to ensure that healthcare systems have the capacity to respond to a new surge in cases. Finally, there must be an assessment of the response to COVID-19 so far, to identify best practices and lessons learned that can in turn strengthen future response measures, as well as a strong risk communication strategy to inform and engage the public and vulnerable groups explaining the rationale behind phasing out ‘stay-at-home’ policies and adjustment of community measures.

During the summer, we have seen the need for a more coordinated and harmonised approach regarding the measures that are being taken by individual countries across the EU. A harmonised approach is of the utmost importance to create trust, assurance and consistency so that our citizens are able to adapt to a ‘new normal’ and can plan ahead.

We have also witnessed many Member States’ challenges in establishing robust, population-based surveillance systems to deliver reliable, timely and comparable data on COVID-19 as well as to maintain a high testing and contact-tracing capacity. At the EU-level, decision-making has often been relying on rapidly available public data and not always accompanied by a thorough description of underlying surveillance systems, testing practices, and settings where transmission occurred.

On 2 October, a virtual ECDC session at the annual European Health Forum Gastein will gather experts and policymakers from national and international organisations to explore the need for innovative solutions for comparable data, strong health systems and good decision-making.

The speakers and participants will discuss how the early lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic can be transformed into a roadmap for strengthening health systems and the overall research and public health endeavours in the EU.

The session aims to identify critical information needs during a crisis and how organisations and agencies such as the WHO, the European Commission and ECDC can best support Member States in generating such information. In order to prepare for the potential increase in COVID-19 infections during the autumn and winter, in tandem with the start of the influenza season, it will be crucial to work closely with Member States on the criteria for data collection and ensure more conformity in the reporting of this data.

“The early lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic can be transformed into a roadmap for strengthening health systems and the overall research and public health endeavours in the EU”

Member States will also need to continue strengthening their preparedness and response planning. While it is still too early to draw any conclusions from this pandemic, the current situation provides a very unique and important opportunity to learn lessons on how international organisations and countries could be better prepared to deal with any future pandemics.

Systematic and comprehensive evaluations involving all key stakeholders will be necessary to review the impact of di­fferent responses. These lessons will also feed into improving preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic and will be used by countries to revise and update their general pandemic preparedness plans.

Fostering data harmonisation and integration of epidemiological standards in health systems would strengthen our defences against epidemics while facilitating effective cross-country cooperation.

We also need to look into innovative technological solutions such as digitalised electronic reporting or AI in order to decrease workloads and increase timeliness. And we need to consider building up surveillance systems where human input is used only where absolutely necessary.

In order to build capacity and resilience in the public health systems throughout Europe against future infectious disease threats, no country can stand alone. It is important that Member States work closely together and the ECDC stands ready to provide support in these endeavours.

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