Niek de Wit, photos: Ivar Pel

Utrecht professor wishes for a local corona advisory body

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Many students have a hard time abiding by the rules to keep the pandemic under control. In order to make things a little easier for them and the vulnerable groups living in Utrecht, Professor Niek de Wit advocates for a local advisory network. Alongside the municipality, he is currently investigating whether such a body can be set up. "More attention needs to be paid to the side effects of the pandemic,” he says.

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The idea is to develop an Outbreak Management Team for the city of Utrecht only. Professor of General Medicine at UMC, Niek de Wit is also a member of the Utrecht Development Board, an independent advisory board for the municipality. His OMT proposal would not only include infectious disease control experts, like the national OMT, but also people who directly experience how things are going in Utrecht, such as district managers, general practitioners, entrepreneurs, and student organisations. De Wit doesn't like the name OMT, however. He prefers to call it a 'corona advisory network'.

"More attention needs to be paid to the side effects of the pandemic, which can be different for everyone," he explains. "For example, online education and social restrictions have a major impact on students' lives. Their social life is gone and they get less exercise. They often live with a lot of roommates, which increases the risk of infection, or they spend days alone in their room, which increases the chance of loneliness.”

"I have a family at home and contact with my colleagues, something that young people who have just moved out of their parents' place do not have. My youngest son's girlfriend tested positive for corona, so they both had to be quarantined. That was very difficult for them, as they were not allowed to see people and not allowed to go outside. Besides, seeing each other online is not the same as seeing each other in real life.”

Local feelers
De Wit explains that the network would engage in dialogue with student organisations, universities and student housing providers to investigate how to make it easier for students to cope with the crisis. "Activities such as online meetings or outdoor sports can be organised for them, if necessary.”

Other groups in Utrecht would receive extra attention from the advisory network as well, such as elderly people who are lonely and entrepreneurs who are having a hard time running their businesses.

Another important task the network would perform is identifying local corona outbreaks. Neighbourhood managers and general practitioners can play an important role in this regard because they are in daily contact with the people living in the city. "It's all about customisation. If a family doctor sees that many students test positive for Covid in their practice, we can take action.”

How do we go on with corona?
If created, the network would not only deal with current measures to fight the pandemic, but future developments as well. "We need more information. The number of people willing to be vaccinated against the new coronavirus is decreasing. The other day I read that only 40 percent of the population actually wants to be vaccinated, which is far too little to control the virus. That’s what worries me the most.”

According to spokesman Jochem Hoogenboom, the municipality is open to the plan. "The municipal council is already in close contact with the groups Niek de Wit mentions, but is nevertheless open to this initiative and will listen carefully to their advice. At the moment, De Wit and the municipality are discussing a potential format for this advisory network.”

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