‘Superspreaders’ who infected 140 people could have caused coronavirus outbreak on Gran Canaria

The capital city of the Canary Island, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, accounts for 58.2% of the active cases in the region

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Mayor de Triana street in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.Ángel Medina G. (EFE)
Guillermo Vega

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the biggest city on Spain’s Canary Islands, spent last week immersed in a heatwave as well as a cloud of Saharan dust. The result was a red weather alert for the first time in its history. But this was not the biggest problem for the ninth-biggest urban center in Spain, which counts on 379,925 inhabitants.

The city has become the ground zero for the coronavirus pandemic on the islands, with its five districts accounting for 58.2% of the 3,375 active cases on the seven Canary Islands, which are located off the northwestern coast of Africa. And that is despite the fact that the city’s residents account for just 19% of the region’s population. The island of Gran Canaria accounts for 69% of total cases in the Canaries, while its capital city is home to 72% of cases on the whole island.

The likely origin of this new outbreak could be down to just one person, or a handful of people. “One or several ‘superspreaders’ from an area of Spain and who integrated into the nightlife and Latino discos in the Guanarteme neighborhood [in the most western corner of the Playa de las Canteras beach] could have been the main cause of the outbreak after spreading the disease to more than 140 people,” explains Lluis Serra Majem, a professor at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and the spokesperson for the Canarian government’s scientific advisory committee.

The origin of this wave is in the outbreaks that came from nightlife and then in family meetings, which saw fast transmission
Epidemiologist Amós García Rojas

Accustomed to low infection figures during Spain’s lockdown, residents of Gran Canaria in general, and inhabitants of the island’s capital in particular, returned to the city’s nightlife with great enthusiasm once the deescalation process allowed for it. News stories about private parties on yachts or in pubs where the required safety measures were not respected have been frequent in recent months. “The origin of this wave is in the outbreaks that came from nightlife and then in family meetings, which saw fast transmission,” explains Amós García Rojas, the head of the epidemiology service at the Canarian public health department. “It’s evident that when there is a spread like this it is because people haven’t respected the guidelines,” he adds.

Data from the Canarian government appears to support García Rojas’s theory: 25% of new cases are aged between 20 and 29; another 17%, between 30 and 39. This sensation of immortality is clear to see if you take a walk along the beaches of the capital, which are frequented by youngsters without masks on.

“What has happened is the perfect storm,” Serra Majem explains. “July was an extraordinary month, with barely any cases detected. That could make us think that there would be no new spikes until September or October. The problem is that with the average age having fallen due to the influence of nightlife, the majority of cases are asymptomatic. And confinement is very complicated in that case: no one wants to stay at home if they don’t feel sick.”

The severity of the situation has forced the regional government to tighten safety measures, with exclusive restrictions just for the island

The consequence of this scant observance of quarantines can be seen in the data. In just two weeks, the city has seen the number of active cases rise by a factor of 7.2, going from 246 on August 14 to 1,965 on August 28. The cumulative incidence in the last two weeks has risen to 411.13 per 100,000 inhabitants, with 1,484 cases registered in the same period, a rate that more than triples the average for the entire Canary Islands. As means of comparison, the Centro district of Madrid has a cumulative incidence of 358.92.

The severity of the situation has forced the regional government to tighten safety measures, with exclusive restrictions just for the island. The administration will ban public events with more than 10 people on the islands that have more than 100 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the coming weeks (Gran Canaria is the only one that exceeds that ratio right now).

What’s more, restaurants and cafés will have to close an hour earlier over the coming weeks, at midnight, while masks will be obligatory in all work environments. Citizens will be advised to limit social meetings to stable family groups, “reducing as much as possible” contact with anyone who is not a relative.

“We are overwhelmed,” says a doctor from a healthcare center in the city

These figures are starting to have an effect on the islands’ hospitals. On August 1, there was one patient admitted with Covid-19. Now there are 185, and that figure is rising. This week, the director of the Guanarteme primary healthcare center made a public appeal in the press calling for the public to avoid appointments with their family doctors unless strictly necessary.

“We are overwhelmed,” says a doctor from a healthcare center in the city, who chose to remain anonymous. The medical professional has two complaints: on the one hand, the “lack of organization and attention” that the regional healthcare department is showing. “There are a lot of duplicated tasks, and they haven’t made even the slightest effort to support us at a time when it is clear that we are in the midst of an outbreak,” she adds. She also criticizes the attitudes of many members of the public. “It seems that they have forgotten what another lockdown could bring and are living their normal lives in the city as if nothing was happening,” she complains.

The Canarian regional premier, Ángel Víctor Torres, agrees with the latter opinion of the doctor. “Our health and our future are at risk,” he said at a press conference on Thursday, at which he criticized the attitudes of the public. “These are actions that are being paid for with hundreds of positives and with young people who are ending up in hospital. Lives and vulnerable people are being put at risk.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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