The spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the resulting outbreak of the disease COVID-19 has faced Belgium and most other countries worldwide with unprecedented challenges. During the crisis, active surveillance systems have been put in place to monitor in real-time the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. These data provide valuable insights in the direct health impact of COVID-19 in Belgium – with current estimates reaching nearly 20,000 deaths, nearly 40,000 hospitalized patients, and many more diseased.
The COVID-19 crisis however has a multidimensional impact on population health, occurring at different time scales and affecting different populations. The direct impact of COVID-19 on public health comprises an immediately visible part (e.g., hospitalisations and deaths), but possibly also a long tail of long-term recovery and complications (Dimension 1). Beyond the peak of the immediate COVID-19 health impact, the impact of postponing non-urgent primary and hospital care (Dimension 2) and of interrupted care for chronic conditions (Dimension 3) will gradually become visible. At a broader level, the impact of mental health challenges and social and economic injury will start to become evident, possibly over many years to come (Dimension 4).
Despite the wealth of information on the current, immediate impact of COVID-19, several knowledge gaps remain on the other dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis impact. To address these knowledge gaps, HELICON aims to fulfil three research objectives:
- Identify socio-economic and sociodemographic factors of risk and resilience through the assessment of the social patterning of COVID-19 testing, infection, hospitalizations and mortality.
- Describe the medium- and long-term direct health impact of COVID-19 infections with regard to healthcare use after COVID hospitalization.
- Assess the indirect health impact of the COVID-19 crisis in terms of non-COVID morbidity and mortality and the health economic impact of delayed health care use.
Throughout the project, four guiding principles will be respected – i.e., valorisation of routine administrative health data sources, evaluation of social differentials, evaluation of differentials across the different epidemic waves, and knowledge translation and policy transfer.
The immediate impact of HELICON will lie in the generation of new scientific knowledge on the long-term and indirect impact of the corona crisis, and the social inequalities therein. As a secondary objective, HELICON will assess the validity of routine administrative data sources for research on novel health threats such as COVID-19. These findings will have implications for the valorisation and management of administrative health data collections. In the medium and long term, HELICON aims to have a significant impact on policy and public services, with expected gains in terms of health and economic development.