CORONAVIRUS

New coronavirus outbreaks in Spain inevitable, warn experts

As the country gradually eases confinement measures, epidemiologists say a spike in infections is likely and that more vigilance and testing are needed

A pedestrian with a mask in Benidorm, a popular tourist destination on Spain’s eastern coast.
A pedestrian with a mask in Benidorm, a popular tourist destination on Spain’s eastern coast.Mònica Torres / EL PAÍS

The new normality that Spain is moving toward as it leaves the worst of the coronavirus epidemic behind it will be a demanding place. The use of face masks will continue to be necessary, as will maintaining social-distancing measures, even when no dangers are evident. At the same time, citizens will have to be very flexible and change their plans when the virus rears its head once more. “There will be new outbreaks with the deescalation, it’s inevitable,” explains Pere Godoy, the president of the Spanish Epidemiological Society (SEE). “We will have to adapt to them and the measures that will be taken to control them.”

Residents in the Valencia region and the municipality of Totana, Murcia, have had a taste in recent days of what is to come. The former saw how the regional authorities went from accelerating the deescalation process to putting the brakes on, due to an outbreak of coronavirus cases in Benidorm, Villajoyosa and Elda, Ferran Bono reports. The latter were witness to how the rest of the region left them behind due to an outbreak with six positive cases and 50 people placed in isolation in the municipality.

“In some cases it’s going to be tough, but it’s the only way to stop the virus,” argues Santiago Moreno, the head of the infectious diseases service at Madrid’s Ramón y Cajal Hospital. “We are going to have spikes, some will be small and some will be bigger. And when the fall arrives, if the virus is seasonal, the outbreaks will be bigger. The only way to contain them is to quickly identify cases, investigate contacts, carry out PCR tests and isolate those who are positive. We already made mistakes once and we can’t let ourselves do it again,” he adds.

The trickle of new outbreaks is being noted on a larger scale in those countries that began the deescalation of coronavirus confinement measures before Spain did. Germany, for example, is investigating outbreaks that originated at a religious congregation and in a restaurant. In the first case, local media have reported that more than a hundred people have been infected after attending one of the first religious ceremonies after the end of confinement in the state of Hesse. In the second case, with 10 people infected, a restaurant in Lower Saxony was the source.

“The situation shows how important it is for all of us, especially right now, to be vigilant and not to drop our guard,” said the health minister in Hesse, Kai Klose. “The virus is still here and wants to spread. Our best protection is to comply with hygiene measures, social distancing and protecting our mouth and nose.”

In Spain, Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts, warned on Friday that small outbreaks have already been detected in Spain, and have required action to be taken. However, as is customary, he did not offer further details on the locations of these spikes.

The biggest outbreak seen in recent weeks in Spain affected two slaughterhouses in Binéfar, Huesca, with more than 300 people affected and cases that traveled as far as the neighboring province of Lleida. “The risk of these outbreaks is that, if they are not controlled quickly, they spread very rapidly via secondary cases,” warns Pere Godoy. “Those who get infected in their workplace then infect the people who they live with and that’s how the propagation accelerates.”

Godoy believes that “in the sectors that haven’t stopped activity, such as the food sector, I’m sure that there have continued to be active chains of infection, some of which have not been detected because there were other priorities. These chains could now begin to surface, so we will have to be vigilant.”

Workplaces and leisure and entertainment facilities are key sites in terms of being sources of infection as economic activity restarts in Spain after two long months of isolation, the experts agree. “Infections will not stop,” Godoy explains. “Every time there is an oversight in a place and a group of people do not respect the protection measures, the virus will find a clear path to spread.”

Tracing cases

An active search for cases, PCR tests for all suspected infections, contact tracing, PRC tests for contacts and isolation for all positives. This is the recipe that, with ever greater insistence, the experts are tirelessly recommending in order to deal with the virus.

Now that the problems the authorities have had in terms of their capacity to carry out diagnostic tests have been overcome, Spain’s regions have been reporting on the strengthened resources they have at their disposal to track cases. Castilla-La Mancha announced 10 days ago that it had hired 427 nursing professionals, the Balearics 150, Galicia 20, Andalusia 50, Valencia a thousand…

“What we do in our private lives will also be important,” Santiago Moreno points out. “We all know the measures that we have to adopt to protect ourselves and others.” “The specialist admits that it will not always be possible to comply with these measures down to the letter, but warns that “the risk exists and it’s an exercise in responsibility to follow them as much as possible in this new stage.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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