Spain is being plunged into a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and the country’s hospitals are beginning to suffer as a result. There are currently more than 17,600 Covid-19 patients being treated, 64% up on the figure before Christmas, and the number of people in intensive care units (ICUs) has risen 39% since December 24. Epidemiologists are warning that the curve of infections will continue to rise, while some experts are calling for a home lockdown in order to stop the transmission of the virus and avoid hospitals becoming overwhelmed.
The relaxation of restrictions in December and the rise of social interaction over the Christmas period are behind this third wave, which comes hot on the heels of the second one, which was seen in the autumn. The Health Ministry reported 25,438 new infections and added 408 victims to the overall death toll on Tuesday, while the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants is currently at 454 for the whole of Spain.
The figures have yet to reflect the impact of Kings’ Day celebrations, which took place last week, but the pressure on the country’s hospitals is constantly rising. “We’re going to have worse figures than in the second wave,” said Ricard Ferrer, the ICU chief at the Vall d’Hebron Hospital in Barcelona and the president of the Spanish Society of Intensive Medicine. “The rise is more gradual in the ICUs and we have more time to prepare, but this is going to go further. We will see more of an impact than in the second wave.”
All of the country’s regions apart from Asturias and the Canary Islands have a cumulative number of cases above 250 per 100,000 inhabitants in 14 days, which is the level considered high risk by the Health Ministry. Community transmission is rampant in the majority of territories, with an incidence of 1,021 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days in Extremadura, and in excess of 600 in the Balearic Islands and Madrid. Health Minister Salvador Illa called the data “very worrying” on Tuesday. “Tough weeks are ahead,” he added, saying that “January will be very complicated.”
Tuesday’s report saw Spain close to the maximum number of infections notified in the second wave, with 25,595 reported on October 30. But the worst it still to come. “The situation is very bad and is getting worse,” said Daniel López-Acuña, a former director of emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO). “But it was to be expected given the lax measures at Christmas. We have seen huge levels of transmission, the incidence has shot up and we will see this over a few more weeks, because what we are observing now is from New Year and we still have the effect of Kings’ Day to come. Between January 20 and 30 we will reach the peak, whether or not measures are taken from now.”
The situation, according to the epidemiologists consulted, is critical – especially due to the pressure on hospitals and other healthcare centers. The starting point in terms of occupation of beds for Covid-19 cases is much higher “and the time it takes to overwhelm a hospital will be much shorter,” warned Alberto Infante, from the National Health School at the Carlos III Health Institute. In fact, there are already 17,645 people hospitalized due to the virus, 2,651 in intensive care.
The chosen strategy will be paid for with more deaths due to Covid and other diseases that could have been avoided and with the saturation of the hospitalsAlberto Infante, National Health School at the Carlos III Health Institute
Nine regions currently have more than 25% of their ICU beds occupied by Covid patients, which is another indicator used by the Health Ministry to measure situations of extreme risk. “We are light years away from that warning light,” López-Acuña insisted. “We are exceeding everything. There are many cases in the street and transmission has intensified.”
In the Valencia region, 27% of conventional beds and 43% of ICU beds are occupied by Covid patients, a situation that has forced the regional government to reorganize hospital activity. The Health Ministry has suspended all non-essential surgeries and tests and has ordered more ICU beds to be prepared as well as the preparation of field hospitals at three major healthcare centers.
The epidemiologists consulted by this newspaper have called for more “drastic” measures in order to flatten the curve and avoid the eventual breakdown of ICU units, as happened in many hospitals during the first wave last year. “There is no other choice but to restrict social interaction and for there to be a confinement for at least two weeks in order to slam on the brakes,” Infante said. “We are not going to flatten the curve with timid measures,” added López-Acuña. The College of Physicians in Murcia has also called on the government to impose a home confinement in the region, which currently has a cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants of 279, well below the Spanish average.
Illa, however, said on Tuesday that this was not a current option being considered by the government, and that Spain would be able to flatten the curve “as it did in October” during the second wave.
“It’s possible that Illa is right and the curve can be slowed,” responded Infante. “But I doubt that it can be flattened. And of course the chosen strategy will be paid for with more deaths due to Covid and other diseases that could have been avoided and with the saturation of the hospitals.” “We will see if the current restrictions work,” added Ferrer. “But if the incidence continues to rise, more drastic measures will have to be taken.”
English version by Simon Hunter.