Spain sees new drop in daily coronavirus deaths, but total exceeds 15,000

A month after the outbreak began, the country is still struggling to find a reliable way to count the victims

Members of the Parachute Brigade help transport the bodies of coronavirus victims.
Members of the Parachute Brigade help transport the bodies of coronavirus victims.Chema Moya / EFE

The number of daily coronavirus deaths in Spain was 683 on Thursday, according to official figures released by the Health Ministry. This represents a drop from Wednesday, when 757 people died over the course of 24 hours. The overall official death toll is now 15,238.

There was also a drop in the number of new infections. According to the Health Ministry, there were 5,756 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, compared to 6,180 on Wednesday. The total number of confirmed cases in the country stands at 152,446.

The ministry also reported on Thursday that 52,165 patients have recovered from the disease since the beginning of the outbreak. This figure represents 34.2% of total registered infections.

Speaking at the daily government press conference on the coronavirus epidemic in Spain, Dr María José Sierra from the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts, said that the figures were following a downward trend. “Like yesterday, [the figures] continue the downward trend in cases, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions. The analysis shows us that the rate is generally falling in every region,” she said.

The news came as Spanish Congress was getting ready to vote on an extension of the state of alarm that was declared on March 14, and which would now extend to April 26 in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Counting methods

As one of the world’s hardest-hit countries, Spain has already surpassed Italy in terms of the number of deaths as a proportion of the population. But a month after the outbreak began, the country is still struggling to find a reliable way to count the victims. The figures offered daily by the Health Ministry only provide a partial picture due to a shortage of testing kits and the decision to count only people who were tested. This potentially leaves out thousands more who died in senior residences, in their own homes or at overburdened hospitals without enough tests for everyone. According to the Health Ministry, more than 90% of cases are estimated to have not been registered.

There is a second system named MoMo, designed specifically to detect the excess deaths caused by unusual events such as a heatwave or a flu epidemic, that has already evidenced up to three times as many deaths as would be normally expected at this time of the year in regions such as Castilla-La Mancha. But this tool relies on death records from Spain’s civil registries, which are currently overwhelmed and understaffed as workers stay home to prevent contagion, leading to delays in updating the records.

Tests and trials

The Health Ministry has announced that it is going to carry out a mass testing campaign in order to get a more realistic picture of the spread of the coronavirus in the hopes that it will help combat the epidemic.

Clinical trials are also underway for drugs that might stop contagion among health workers, who represent around 15% of all confirmed coronavirus cases in Spain.

The government is also preparing infrastructure that could temporarily house asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus who work in essential services, such as healthcare employees, workers in senior residences, police and delivery workers.

Situation in Catalonia

The Catalan regional government, presided over by premier Quim Torra, has halted the opening of two field hospitals built by the army and the Civil Guard to ease the strain on Barcelona province’s main medical centers.

Work on the field hospital in the municipality of Sant Andreu de la Barca, in Barcelona province, was finished 15 days ago, but the regional government refuses to use it. The center, which was built in a sports center, has space for 140 beds. “I don’t know what has upset them, but every day we visit between 40 and 60 people in their homes who are dying alone while that hospital is empty,” said Enric Llorca, the Socialist Party (PSC) mayor of Sant Andreu de la Barca.

The field hospital in the city of Sabadell was set to be completed this Thursday. With 210 beds, it aimed to relieve the pressure on the Parc Taulí hospital, which treats 400,000 people. In this case, it was put up by the army’s Emergency Military Unit (UME) on an athletics track. “Sick people would have been better off sleeping there [in the field hospital] than on the steps of the Parc Taulí emergency ward,” said Marta Farrés, the mayor of Sabadell.

“The problem is that the Catalan government always wants to make it clear that it does not need the [Spanish] state, but in the end they find themselves overwhelmed by the reality," said a source in the central government. There has been an ongoing drive in Catalonia for independence from Spain in recent years, which reached its peak in 2017 when an illegal referendum on independence was held and a subsequent unilateral declaration of independence passed by the regional parliament.

Torra announced on Thursday that the regional government would provide more than 14 million face masks to residents of the region. In a radio interview with Catalan station RAC1, the premier said that masks would be made available at pharmacies, and given to residents with public health cards. Torra told the station that he wants the use of the personal protective equipment to be compulsory.

Traffic controls

There were long delays on major roads in Madrid on Wednesday as authorities increased traffic controls to ensure all vehicles were complying with the lockdown rules, which prohibit non-essential travel. The extra security comes as Spain heads into the Easter long weekend, when people often leave the city for trips to second residences.

Sources from the Interior Ministry said that the traffic jams seen on Wednesday were due to the increased controls, not because there were more cars on the road. “We are not detecting a significant rise in trips or people leaving the big cities, nor alleged trips to second residences,” these sources said.

In the first 15 days after the state of alarm came into effect, 3,700 drivers were fined for traveling without a proper reason.

English version by Susana Urra and Melissa Kitson.

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