Asturias becomes first ‘coronavirus-free’ region in Spain

The northwestern territory has gone through the 14-day incubation cycle without recording a single new case of Covid-19

The Rastro flea market in Gijón on June 21.
The Rastro flea market in Gijón on June 21.Alberto Morante (EFE)
Pablo Linde

Asturias has become the first region in Spain to have gone 14 days without registering a new case of Covid-19. According to the daily reports issued by the Spanish Health Ministry, it is the only area to have passed through the two-week incubation period of the virus without recording a single infection. But while the northwestern territory has eliminated SARS-CoV-2, the situation is not likely to last for long as visitors from outside the region are expected to arrive over summer.

The 14-day barrier is one of the important benchmarks of the coronavirus crisis. Although incubation of the virus tends to take between five and six days, the period can be as long as two weeks – and even longer in some exceptional cases. That’s why quarantine measures are set for 14 days, and why each phase of the government’s coronavirus deescalation plan was designed to last for two weeks. After 14 days, a population can feel assured that transmission of the virus has been eliminated, although epidemiologists add another incubation period – for a total of 28 days – to the margin to be completely sure the virus is gone.

After the great effort we have all made, we do not want to let our guard down
Blanca Aranda, regional health department

Regional authorities in Asturias reported zero cases for the first time on Friday – a result that has been repeated three more times since then. Only the Spanish exclave city of Ceuta in North Africa has achieved this feat, which it recorded just a day earlier. But Ceuta is a much smaller and more isolated area, with 85,000 inhabitants compared to the one million residents in Asturias.

According to Luis Hevia, the head of Asturias’ largest healthcare area, “the PCR tests [for Covid-19] are consistently coming back negative.” At the Central University Hospital in Asturias, where much of the testing process is centralized, around 800 tests are being done a day. Tests are also being carried out on healthcare workers who show no coronavirus symptoms to make sure the virus is not being silently transmitted among those who care for the most vulnerable. Several weeks ago, the hospital was almost exclusively dedicated to coronavirus patients, but now there is only one patient in the ward and six in intensive care, according to Hevia, who is aware that the situation could change.

“We have been working so much with the same routine to detect cases and define protocols that we didn’t even realize that we had made the two-week benchmark,” explained Rafael Cofiño, the regional government’s managing director of Public Health. “The incidence [of the virus] has almost always been low,” he added, explaining that peaks were detected “because when a case was found, PCR [tests] were done on all their contacts.” This is what happened following an outbreak in the El Carmen de Gijón residence at the end of May, which was the last recorded in the region.

Health authorities are concerned about the arrival of visitors from outside of Asturias who have second homes in the region

But the regional government does not want to claim victory yet and has opted for prudence. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Asturias has reported nearly the lowest figures of any other region in Spain. This situation was helped by its geographic position, reduced travel and efficient management, which allowed all suspected coronavirus cases to be tested. At the peak of the pandemic, in March and April, Asturias was the region performing the third-highest number of PCR tests per inhabitant.

Health authorities, however, are now concerned about the arrival of visitors from outside of Asturias. Many people have second homes in the region and are expected to arrive this week to spend their summer vacations there. “The idea is to continue as we have been, detecting both in primary healthcare systems and in residences as fast as possible if there are new cases,” said Cofiño.

“After the great effort we have all made, we do not want to let our guard down,” added Blanca Aranda, the cabinet head of the regional health department. “We know that people outside [the region] will arrive in summer and it is very likely that the virus will be reintroduced. We have to be very vigilant to locate it in time and cut the contagion as soon as possible so that we don’t become like other regions, where the number of cases is rising and they are struggling.” In Aragón, for example, four comarcas – administrative areas smaller than a province – returned to Phase 2 of the deescalation plan last week after an outbreak was detected among fruit pickers.

The downward trend of the pandemic has clearly changed. After weeks of falling numbers, the most recent figures in Spain show that the situation has worsened slightly as a result of coronavirus outbreaks. On Sunday, the Health Ministry recorded 118 new cases. But what is more telling is the number of diagnoses with symptoms beginning in the last seven days. On Sunday, that figure was 343 – nearly double the number recorded 10 days ago. In the last seven days, 52 people have died from the coronavirus, nine have required intensive care and 89 have been hospitalized.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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