Spain to roll out faster coronavirus tests as cases continue to soar

Dozens of seniors are reported dead at nursing homes while the foreign ministry asks Spaniards living abroad to stay where they are

Fundación Jiménez Díaz
The Fundación Jiménez Díaz University Hospital in Madrid.Joaquin Corchero (Europa Press)

The Spanish Health Ministry said on Wednesday that new, faster tests to detect coronavirus cases will be rolled out this week.

The announcement comes as infections topped 13,700, deaths reached 616 and 774 patients were in intensive care. A new outbreak was detected on Wednesday at a senior home in the Basque city of Vitoria, where eight residents have died. The head of another senior residence in Tomelloso (Ciudad Real) said that 12 people have died there.

In Madrid, at least 19 seniors have died in another nursing home and healthcare sources said that more are likely to do so. The Madrid region is the epicenter of the epidemic in Spain, with 5,637 cases and 390 deaths so far.

The Civil Guard stopped a face mask auction that was going to be held online

King Felipe VI will address the nation at 9pm on Wednesday, hours after lawmakers convened in a nearly deserted Congress to discuss the government’s strategy against the pandemic.

Earlier in the day, the White House postponed a state visit to Washington by the Spanish king and his wife Doña Letizia that had been scheduled for April 21, due to coronavirus concerns.

Staying put

A man walking his dog in Madrid. Animal societies have asked owners to take their pets out on short walks during the lockdown.
A man walking his dog in Madrid. Animal societies have asked owners to take their pets out on short walks during the lockdown. Oscar J. Barroso (Europa Press)

Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya thanked Chinese officials for delivering equipment to fight the coronavirus. She also asked Spaniards who are currently living abroad to stay where they are, and had the following message for foreign nationals in Spain: “I want to tell you that we are in touch with your authorities so you may return to your countries in an orderly manner.”

A total of 88 people have been arrested for disobeying the lockdown imposed on Saturday in a bid to curb the spread of the virus, said officials of the National Police and Civil Guard at a news conference.

The Civil Guard has also confiscated 68,913 face masks, 5,053 pairs of protective glasses and 5,816 surgical gloves “that will be immediately handed over to health authorities.” Most of the material was seized at airports. In Zuera (Zaragoza), the law enforcement agency stopped a face mask auction that was going to be held online.

Faster testing

Health personnel working inside an intensive care ward at La Paz Hospital in Madrid.
Health personnel working inside an intensive care ward at La Paz Hospital in Madrid.Pablo Cuadra (EL PAÍS)

The new tests will help detect the coronavirus among people with mild symptoms who are not currently included in the statistics. This will “substantially increase” the number of positives, explained Fernando Simón, head of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts and Emergencies.

The figures in Spain, though rising fast – 18% in the last 24 hours – are likely a fraction of the true extent of the pandemic. Experts note that a more accurate picture is provided by hospital intensive care units, where the increase in patients with Covid-19 was 37.4% over the same 24 hours. Between Tuesday and Wednesday, deaths rose by 21.8% and hospital discharges increased by 5%.

The amount of time and logistics involved in the current testing method, based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR), has overwhelmed health authorities, especially in regions with a higher number of cases. The ministry did not clarify which new method will be used, and Simón admitted that it could produce false positives and negatives and will have to be evaluated before rolling it out nationwide.

Asked by reporters if Spain is preparing emergency field hospitals or reconverting hotels into wards to support the healthcare system, Simón said that “many options” are being considered, including some that involve the Defense Ministry, which has numerous resources at its disposal.

“We also have human resources that could adapt to the system, which is reaching a degree of tension that was previously unknown,” he said.

Changes to the state of alarm

The Spanish Cabinet on Tuesday corrected some of the errors contained in the original declaration of a state of alarm that placed Spain in lockdown on Saturday night.

The original wording of the decree made it possible for groups of people to go out together to buy groceries, or even go down to the beach if no public roads were used.

The corrected version says that all activities outside the house – chiefly to go to work, buy food and purchase medicine – must be done alone. Some exceptions are made, such as for people with children who can take them along on errands.

The new version also revises the businesses that may or may not open during the state of alarm. Hair salons, which were originally allowed to keep operating, have been taken off the list. Veterinary clinics are now expressly mentioned as authorized to work during the lockdown.

English version by Susana Urra.

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