The third wave of the coronavirus pandemic continues to gain pace in Spain. The Health Ministry reported on Monday that there have been 61,422 confirmed new infections since Friday, the biggest increase that has been seen on a Monday – when weekend data is also included – since the start of the pandemic. A total of 401 people were also added to the overall death toll from the virus.
“Difficult weeks are on their way,” warned Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), speaking at a press conference on Monday to present the latest data. “In the coming days an increase in the incidence is expected,” he added, in reference to the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants. This data point is currently at 436, a substantial increase from the 350 registered just three days before. The trend is “clearly rising” and the “situation is not promising,” he added. “The data is not moving as fast as in the second wave, but there is a considerable increase that is being seen day by day, with figures that are already very close to [those of] the end of October.”
Without losing his calm delivery but with a somewhat somber tone, Simón pointed to the recent Christmas holidays as the origin of the current acceleration in cases on as many as six occasions when speaking last night. “We have perhaps had a better time than we could or should have done and now we have to cope with what is coming,” he warned.
What is on its way is a very complicated situation in Spain’s hospitals, where nearly 14% of beds are occupied by Covid patients, a percentage that is as high as 26% in intensive care units (ICUs) and is around 40% in regions that are under higher pressure, such as Madrid, Catalonia, Valencia, La Rioja and the Balearic Islands.
While it is still early for them to take effect, Simón said that he was hoping that the restrictions put in place after last week’s Kings’ Day celebrations would soon begin to make a difference. “The hope is that ICUs and hospital beds are not overwhelmed,” he said about the measures. A slowdown in the growth of new cases could begin to be seen “at the start of next week,” he added.
Simón’s words were a call for responsibility after what he hinted at were the excesses of Christmas, albeit without using those exact words. Asked about the new, more infectious strain of the coronavirus that had been discovered in the United Kingdom, the CCAES director stated: “The problem is not the new strain, it’s our behavior. If we apply [prevention measures] properly, we can control [the epidemiological curve],” he said.
There were some optimistic statements, though fewer than usual. Simón pointed to the ongoing vaccination program, although he admitted that there were some weeks to go before their effect would be noted. “Perhaps in February, when more than a million people have been vaccinated,” he said, pointing out that each person must receive two doses of the immunization.
He also wanted to convey a message of hope when asked whether a new lockdown would be necessary. “It wasn’t needed to control the second wave,” he pointed out, adding that the drastic measure has a major effect “on society and the economy.” “If we behave with solidarity, if we administer the measures in an adequate way,” we will manage to control it, he added.
Spain’s hospitals are currently treating 16,791 Covid patients. This is up 3,333 – nearly 25% – on a week ago. In the country’s ICUs, the rise has been 319 people, up 14.6%, to 2,511 ICU beds.
The situation is particularly complicated in La Rioja, where 42% of ICU beds are occupied by Covid patients, Valencia, with 40%, Catalonia (39%), the Balearic Islands (37%) and Madrid (36%), although there has been a general rise in practically all of Spain.
A sign of this is the large increase in the number of PRC and antigen tests being carried out. After several weeks when they barely exceeded 100,000 a week, given the succession of holidays over the Christmas period, on Friday they numbered over 180,000.
The positivity rate – the percentage of these tests that come back positive – has also continued to rise, another indicator of the increased circulation of the virus right now. The average in all of Spain rose on Friday to 16.7%, but in regions such as Castilla-La Mancha and Valencia, it was above 30% and in another four – Andalusia, Madrid, Extremadura and La Rioja – it was close to 20%.
Extremadura continues to be the worst-hit region right now, with a 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants of 1,022. It is followed by the Balearics (598) and Madrid (596). Meanwhile, the Canary Islands and Asturias are the only regions where the incidence is below 200. Andalusia, which until just a few days ago had similar figures, has seen a considerable rise and is now close to 300 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.
The situation in Spain has become even more complicated due to the effects of Storm Filomena, which left huge amounts of snow behind in Spain and has paralyzed some areas of the country, including Madrid. “I expect it to have an effect, but a minor one,” replied Simón when asked about the effect that the weather could have on the spread of infections and the rhythm of the vaccinations.
As for the new strain of the virus, Simón said that it could not be blamed “in any way” for the rise in infections registered in Spain, as has been the case in the United Kingdom. Research is ongoing in Ireland too as to whether it is to blame for the explosion of cases there. “If the variant has any effect in Spain it will be marginal, at least,” he said. For now, 70 coronavirus cases with this new strain have been identified in regions such as Madrid, Catalonia and Andalusia, and another 72 patients are being monitored for evidence of the new variant.
English version by Simon Hunter.