A birthday party. Double the attendees permitted. Four asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. Twenty infections. That’s what happened in the Catalan province of Lleida, which, as a result of this new outbreak, will see its healthcare area remain in Phase 1 of Spain’s ongoing deescalation plan for at least one week more than expected. But similar stories are being repeated across Spain.
For now, no other incident has caused a scheduled change of phase to be suspended, but other parties in the North African exclave city of Ceuta and the Extremadura region have put the health services on alert.
Progress toward what the Spanish government has dubbed “the new normality” will inevitably bring with it new coronavirus outbreaks. Capacity to detect and control them in time will determine whether the situation merits a territory being held in its current phase or even taking a step back.
In Badajoz another birthday party obliged 18 people to self-isolate, while there have been other small cases of inter-familiar infections at social gatherings
In Ceuta, a number of parties – one of which is thought to have been attended by 80 people – even threatened seeing the city returning to Phase 0, the first of the four-stage plan implemented by the government. But Health Minister Salvador Illa stated that while the outbreak is under control, that measure will not be necessary.
There have also been new outbreaks related to the meat industry. In Totana, Murcia, there have been a number of cases involving day laborers at food plants, meaning that the municipality has remained in Phase 1 while the rest of the southeastern region has moved to Phase 2. There has also been an outbreak in the province of Cuenca, although Minister Illa provided no further details about this case.
Meanwhile, in Badajoz another birthday party obliged 18 people to self-isolate, while there have been other small cases of inter-familiar infections at social gatherings. In the middle of May, an asymptomatic carrier of the coronavirus infected another eight relatives in Tenerife, according to the local newspaper Canarias 7.
“An innocent party can end up with an outbreak,” warned this week Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts. But some of the cases were not so innocent, and occurred after clear violations of the deescalation rules. This is why the Spanish authorities have been constantly calling on citizens not to drop their guard and to stick closely to the regulations of each phase. “If we are not all already in the new normality it’s for a reason,” said Simón.
According to Andrea Burón, the spokesperson for the Spanish Society for Public Health and Health Administration (Sespas), these small outbreaks are “inevitable.” “The risk is there, and that is why it is important that the health systems organize their strategies well and they invest in the resources needed to detect cases and isolate contacts,” she says. “What’s more, it’s very important that citizens collaborate, both in terms of sticking to the rules, and reporting any suspicions.”
Losing the trail
What the experts are particularly worried about, however, is losing the trail of infections – i.e. that unconnected cases begin to arise. This would require the reintroduction of mass-confinement measures. While the chains of infection are known, it is enough to isolate those people who have had direct contact with someone who is infected.
“Evidently, what we can’t have is an outbreak every day in the same province, that would force us to take a step back in the deescalation,” explains Jesús Molina Cabrillana, from the Spanish Society for Preventive Medicine, Public Health and Hygiene. “But what we are seeing up until now is normal.” Molina points in particular to a problem with young people, who have many social contacts and could transmit the virus while asymptomatic.
The fear is that one of these outbreaks brings with it another epidemic. Experts believe that the reaction would be better this time around, and that hospitals would not suffer the pressure that they saw in the most critical months in Spain, between March and April. But the only way to guarantee this is to control the outbreaks before they can no longer be tracked.
English version by Simon Hunter.