Madrid, Basque city close schools as coronavirus continues spread in Spain

The number of people infected doubled in the Madrid region in just 24 hours, with the nationwide count reaching 1,236 by Monday evening and the total death toll 30

Civil Guard officers warn dozens of residents in Haro that they have been put under “active surveillance.”
Civil Guard officers warn dozens of residents in Haro that they have been put under “active surveillance.”EFE (EL PAÍS)

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise in Spain, authorities in Madrid – one of the main infection points in the country – have ordered all education centers to close for two weeks starting on Wednesday. The measure will affect more than 1.5 million students at all levels of the school system, from early education to universities.

The decision came on Monday evening, shortly after the Basque Country announced that all schools in the city of Vitoria, another transmission hub, will also remain shut for the next 15 days. If necessary, scheduled surgeries in the Madrid region will also be canceled, along with non-essential medical appointments and tests.

These measures were announced by regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the Madrid region.

Also on Monday, Health Minister Salvador Illa recommended that people work from home in Madrid if they can, as well as in the Basque cities of Vitoria and Labastida.

At least 1,236 people had tested positive for the virus by the latest nationwide count on Monday evening, and the death toll had climbed to 30, a significant rise from the 10 deaths officially registered on Saturday.

For the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Spain, health authorities on Monday admitted that the scenario has changed.

With more than a thousand confirmed cases by Monday afternoon, nearly twice as many as 24 hours earlier, there is “obvious community transmission” in two regions, Madrid and the Basque Country, said Fernando Simón, head of the Coordination Center for Health Alerts and Emergencies.

Authorities admit that this requires additional measures to those that have been in force to date, namely isolating ill people and placing their contacts in quarantine. Until recently, the majority of cases could be traced back to specific locations and authorities were confident that the spread could be contained.

But the quick rise in infections and the existence of unknown transmission hubs are triggering new measures such as school closures. In the town of Haro, in Spain’s northern region of La Rioja, a few dozen people who caught the virus at a funeral have been told to remain at home or face arrest and hefty fines.

Picking up speed

Reported fatalities jumped from 10 on Saturday to 17 on Sunday, while the number of confirmed infections grew 20% over the same period. By Monday afternoon the death toll had reached 26, with more than a thousand infections reported nationwide.

All the fatalities were elderly people with underlying health problems

Daniel López Acuña, a former official at the World Health Organization (WHO), explained that the rise in deaths is part of the normal evolution of the epidemic. “A few days have elapsed since the beginning of the infection, and we are now starting to see that expressed in terms of mortality among vulnerable people,” he said.

All the fatalities have been elderly people with underlying health problems. This pattern underscores how senior citizens are the biggest at-risk group from a disease where the mortality rate for other population segments ranges from low to zero, in the case of young children, according to a study conducted in China.

Although every single region of Spain has reported the presence of the virus, 60% of cases are concentrated in three of them: La Rioja, Madrid and the Basque Country.

Enforcing the quarantine

In the small northern region of La Rioja, world famous for its red wines, more than 81 cases have been reported, most of them in the town of Haro. The source of the infection has been traced back to a funeral held in the Basque city of Vitoria. On Sunday morning, Civil Guard officers wearing protective gear showed up at these individuals’ homes to inform them that they must refrain from leaving their houses or face hefty fines of up to €600,000, or even be arrested and transferred to a hospital under police surveillance. Health Minister Salvador Illa said on Sunday that they are “not quarantined” but “under active surveillance” and must “remain in their homes because that’s what medical protocols establish to prevent the spread of the virus.”

In the Basque Country, where there are over 149 reported cases, the biggest concern is the fact that several health workers have been affected, as the spread of the virus among this group could lead to staff shortages at hospitals in the event of a surge in infections among the general population.

But the biggest hot spot is in the Madrid region, with more than 469 known cases and 16 deaths. Many of the new infections reported on Saturday can be traced back to a senior center in the town of Valdemoro. The Madrid regional government on Friday ordered 213 private and public senior centers closed following the deaths of two people.

The source of some of the Madrid infections is still being investigated in a bid to contain further spread. The region has also rolled out a home assistance program so that ill people can stay in their houses instead of going to the hospital. So far, a vast majority of the cases are mild enough that no hospitalization is required.

Chaos at Valdemoro hospital

“My husband might not make it through this, so I want people to know that Valdemoro Hospital is in a state of chaos,” said Carmen Prieto, 62, whose 75-year-old husband walked into the center on Thursday and was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Before dawn on Saturday he and five other patients were transferred by ambulance to Collado Villalba General Hospital, where he is in intensive care. “They were taken away without even informing the families,” said Prieto, who found out about the transfer from her own husband via Whatsapp.

Other people have reported similar incidents, including Gema Macarrilla, whose 66-year-old mother was transferred from Valdemoro to Villalba, north of the capital, without being informed. “They took her out at 1am on Saturday in a wheelchair, in her pajamas, without underwear or even a blanket,” she said. “These are people with pneumonia who can get sicker with the cold. They were treated like animals.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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