CORONAVIRUS

Spain reports 10,829 new coronavirus cases, adds 337 deaths to official toll

The incidence rate is falling at different speeds in each region, a situation experts say may be connected to the more contagious strain of the virus detected in the UK

Health workers treating a Covid-19 patient in intensive care.
Health workers treating a Covid-19 patient in intensive care.Carlos Rosillo

The Spanish Health Ministry reported 10,829 new coronavirus infections and added 337 Covid-19 fatalities to the overall death toll on Wednesday. The latest data consolidates the positive trend in terms of the epidemiological figures, but the situation remains delicate across Spain.

With a 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants above 250, the country continues to be above levels considered to be “critical.” The number of victims is still rising and now exceeds 66,000, according to the Health Ministry’s official death toll. This figure could be as high as 90,000, if the excess mortality detected since the beginning of the pandemic is taken into account, according to data from the National Statistics Institute (INE).

Hospitals continue to be under a lot of pressure, with more than 18,000 Covid-19 patients currently admitted and 3,909 of these in ICUs

In recent days, the most notable conclusions to draw from the government’s data is that the fall is being noted at a very different speed according to each region, and that these differences do not seem to be attributable to the situation seen in each region one or two weeks ago.

The 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the country as a whole has fallen from 584 last Wednesday to 350 in the latest report, which is a drop of 40%. In La Rioja, Extremadura, Murcia, Valencia, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León the fall has been above 50% over the same time period, while in the Balearic Islands it was 45%.

At the other end of the scale, the fall since last Wednesday is 15% in the Canary Islands, 25% in the Basque Country, and in Catalonia, Aragón, Madrid and Cantabria, it is around 30%.

While no expert has gone so far as to offer a conclusive explanation for this difference, there are some hypotheses that could account for them. In the case of the Canary Islands, with an incidence of 126 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the low levels – within the context of Spain as a whole – mean that it is difficult for the incidence rate to fall at the same speed as it is in other regions.

Less-restrictive coronavirus measures, which are in place in regions such as Madrid – which currently has the worst coronavirus data, apart from the North African exclave city of Melilla – may also be a reason for the slower fall in the figures.

Unlike other parts of Spain, Madrid has not closed its bars and restaurants despite high infection rates.
Unlike other parts of Spain, Madrid has not closed its bars and restaurants despite high infection rates.Jaime Villanueva

But the newest theory for these differences was suggested on Wednesday morning by the public health secretary of the Catalan government, Josep Maria Argimon: the more contagious strain of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom, known as B.1.1.7.

“It seems as if the curve is flattening,” he explained, in reference to the recent trends seen in the region, “and that is not good news.” Argimon proposed the “theory” that the more-infectious nature of the UK variant, which is thought to have originated in the English county of Kent, is seeing the downward trend lose momentum. This strain is more and more prevalent in Catalonia and now accounts for one in every three new infections, according to data offered by the regional government.

This explanation coincides with what has happened in other regions, such as Madrid and Cantabria, where the variant also accounts for a substantial proportion of new infections and the fall in incidence is also slower.

The 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants has fallen from 584 to 350 in a week, but remains at “extreme risk” levels

Whatever the case, Spain continues to be at incidence levels that the Health Ministry considers to be an indicator of “extreme risk,” above 250 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. It is also in a very bad situation in terms of dealing with a new spike in cases. The country’s hospitals continue to be under a lot of pressure, with more than 18,000 Covid-19 patients currently admitted and 3,909 of these in intensive care units (ICUs).

This is 14% of total hospital beds, and 36% of ICU beds, percentages that are falling a lot slower than the incidence, as happened in the second wave. In the last week, these figures have barely fallen five and six points, respectively.

The unease over the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant coincides with the announcement made by a number of regions, including Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha, of a certain relaxation of the current restrictions in place. Health Minister Carolina Darias has called for caution when making these decisions and called on the regions that are planning on relaxing measures to “keep them in place,” Pablo Linde reports.

“A very prudent deescalation is necessary,” she said. “If we look back at what has happened in other waves, we need to learn.” The minister pointed to regions such as Madrid that are “around 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants,” calling for “responsibility.” Darias refused to predict whether it would be possible to relax the restrictions at Easter, as was permitted during the Christmas holiday season. “The objective is to get below 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, and until we get there, we can’t consider any other question,” she said.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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