STORM FILOMENA

Spain pushes forward with coronavirus vaccination drive amid extreme weather

Immunization was put on hold in Madrid due to Storm Filomena, but the region – like others hit by the heavy snowfall – has promised that the process will not suffer more delays

The entrance to the Gregorio Marañon hospital in Madrid covered in snow due to Storm Filomena.
The entrance to the Gregorio Marañon hospital in Madrid covered in snow due to Storm Filomena.Jaime Villanueva / EL PAÍS

Spanish authorities are working to ensure the country’s coronavirus vaccination drive faces no further delays as a result of Storm Filomena, which led to historic snowfall in Madrid over the weekend and is forecast to cause an intense cold snap over the next week.

The city of Madrid was paralyzed by the extreme weather, with roads blocked, train services suspended and Madrid’s Barajas-Adolfo Suárez airport forced to close. The heavy snowfall also led to problems at medical centers, with many health workers and patients unable to access facilities. As a result of the problems, the Madrid health department suspended all coronavirus vaccinations for health workers on Saturday, pointing to the difficulties with access and staffing shortages.

At the Infanta Leonor Hospital in Madrid, in the Vallecas district, many workers were stranded by the snow on Saturday, while others were not able to reach the hospital for their shift. Some chose to walk kilometers in the snow to relieve their colleagues, and according to a spokesperson from the regional health department, jeeps were also used “to transfer health workers to work centers and help relieve colleagues who had been working two shifts in a row.”

“Nurses Paco and Mónica, walking 22km in the snow to relieve staff at the ICU at 12 de Octubre hospital.”

The Madrid spokesperson told EL PAÍS that entrances to emergency units had been cleared, arguing that “while there are still difficulties in some centers, the issues are expected to be resolved in the next hours.” The nursing union Satse, however, maintains that there are some health workers in Madrid who have not gone home for three days.

Despite the issues, the Madrid region has said there will be no further changes to the vaccination drive. A new shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was scheduled to arrive by plane at Madrid’s Barajas airport on Monday. But although the airport began to resume activity on Sunday night, the unfavorable weather conditions meant that the shipment was instead sent to the Basque city of Vitoria. From there, it will be transported by a security convoy to the Spanish capital.

Spain’s Transportation Ministry will keep 1,300 snowplows in nine of the regions most affected by Storm Philomena – Aragón, Catalonia, Cantabria, Valencia, Castilla y León, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura, La Rioja and Madrid – to ensure roads remain clear. There are concerns, however, that the extreme cold will turn the remaining snow into ice, leading to more complications on the roads. Eleven regions are on alert for low temperatures, with thermometers set to plummet below -10ºC in some areas.

Other regions that were hit by Storm Philomena have also promised to keep the immunization on track despite the extreme weather. In Aragón, a spokesperson from the health department said that the region was not worried about delays, explaining that “doses already arrived last week in areas of the Pyrenees with a lot of snow.” If a shipment cannot reach a particular health center in Aragón due to the state of the roads, the vaccines will remain in the respective hospital, which will immunize the at-risk groups and senior residences in the city, reports Patricia Peiró.

In La Rioja, vaccinations went ahead over the weekend despite the adverse weather conditions, while in Castilla y León, authorities say they are the most prepared to deal with the forecasted frosty conditions. There were also few reports of problems in Catalonia, with the vaccination drive only suspended on Friday in the cities of Batea and Móra in Tarragona province, and in Lleida. The Catalan health department is aiming to open all primary healthcare centers on Monday, except in the health area of Falset in Tarragona, which will remain closed due to the build-up of snow.

The rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, which began at the end of December, is happening at an uneven pace across Spain’s regions. As of Friday, which brought to an end the second week of the vaccination drive, Asturias and Galicia had administered 60% of all doses received, compared to Madrid and Cantabria, where the figure was 11% and 19%, respectively.

With reporting by Maite Morate and Isabel Valdés.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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