The third wave of the coronavirus is continuing to break records in Spain. The Spanish Health Ministry reported that 84,287 new cases had been detected since Friday, the biggest increase recorded on a Monday – when weekend data is also included – since the start of the pandemic. The previous record was set last Monday, when 61,422 new infections were reported
“We could be reaching the peak of the third wave,” said Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), at a government press conference on Monday. But, he warned, it may be some time before the figures are consolidated, as there is typically underreporting over the weekends. Spain also recorded its highest incidence rate of the pandemic on Monday. The 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants is now 689 – nearly triple the 250-threshold considered to be an indicator of extreme risk.
Since the end of December, hospital admissions have been rising nearly exponentiallyÁlvaro Castellanos, vice-president of the Spanish Society of Intensive, Critical and Coronary Medicine
Simón explained that while the virus continues to spread, it is doing so at a slower rate than on previous days. But contagions could continue to rise, albeit at a slower rate, for days to come. Simón acknowledged that new infections could plateau instead of starting to fall. The outcome, said the health official, depends on the measures that most Spanish regions began to introduce after the Kings’ Day holiday on January 6 in a bid to contain the spread of the virus. The impact of the new restrictions will be reflected in this week’s figures.
With coronavirus cases on the rise, hospital admissions for Covid-19 have also spiked. Spain reported more hospitalizations last week than during the worst week of the second wave: 12,186 compared to 11,285. Hospitals are also under greater pressure. According to Monday’s report from the Health Ministry, Covid-19 patients now occupy 18.6% of all hospital beds, up from the previous record of 17.28% set on November 9. The occupancy rate in intensive care units (ICUs) is also close to what it was during the worst days of the second wave: 32.7% compared to 32.8%. It is very likely that the figure will soon exceed the November peak, as this is one of the last indicators to reflect a rise in cases, given that it may take weeks for a patient’s condition to worsen to the point where they require intensive care.
Although all hospitals across Spain are under increasing pressure, those in Madrid, Catalonia, Extremadura and the Valencia region face the greatest strain. In Valencia, Covid-19 patients are now being admitted into field hospitals, and the situation in the region is worse than what it was not only during the second wave, but also during the first in March-April 2020. This is also the case for Andalusia and Murcia, where hospitals have been forced to postpone non-urgent surgeries due to the high occupancy rate of Covid-19 patients.
“The health system is not going to be able to handle this wave,” warned María José Campillo, the spokesperson of the Medical Unions Confederation (CESM). “Beds can be put anywhere, but you need health workers to attend them and there are not going to be enough.”
Álvaro Castellanos, the vice president of the Spanish Society of Intensive, Critical and Coronary Medicine (Semicyuc), agreed that there was “a real risk of breakdown” in Spain’s hospitals, explaining: “Since the end of December, admissions have been rising nearly exponentially.”
In response to the worsening data, several regional authorities have been calling on the central government for permission to introduce tougher restrictions, such as an earlier curfew time and a full home lockdown. On Monday, Simón did not rule out earlier curfews, but said there were “alternatives” to the measure, arguing the closure of bars and restaurants was the most effective restriction, “although it is not popular.”
“The greater the number of measures, the greater the likelihood that their combined impact will allow us to control transmission,” said Simón. “If we apply a reduced number of them well, others probably won’t be needed. But if we don’t apply them as well as we would like, we will have to apply a combination of restrictions to achieve a similar effect.”
The question of earlier curfew times will be debated at a meeting of central and regional health officials scheduled for Wednesday. Castilla y León has unilaterally imposed an 8pm curfew in its territory – a move appealed by the central government – while the Basque Country wants to bring the curfew forward to between 6pm and 8pm.
English version by Melissa Kitson.