Spain releases first official figure on Covid victims in senior residences: 29,408 fatalities

Nearly 20,000 people in nursing homes died in the first four months of the pandemic with a confirmed diagnosis or compatible symptoms, but thanks to vaccination this number has plummeted

Two funeral workers in Barcelona transport the body of a Covid-19 victim in November.
Two funeral workers in Barcelona transport the body of a Covid-19 victim in November.Emilio Morenatti (AP)

It has been one of the biggest unknowns of the pandemic: how many seniors in care homes have died due to the coronavirus. One year on, the Spanish government has finally released an official figure. According to data from Spain’s regions, systemized and collated by the Social Rights, Health and Science ministries, 29,408 seniors living in care homes have died due to the virus or with compatible symptoms as of February 21. The official number of Covid-19-related deaths in all social service residences, including those for people with disabilities and for other collectives, stands at 29,782.

The newly released data confirms the devastating impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on senior residences in Spain, which are home to those most vulnerable to the virus, given the age of residents and their pre-existing medical conditions. From now on, the Spanish government will report every Friday the number of victims in social services facilities with confirmed coronavirus or with compatible symptoms, according to sources from the public agency Imserso, which is in charge of senior and social affairs. These figures will be provisional, the sources explain, as the data from the regions must later be refined.

Last year, between March and June 22, 19,835 seniors in care homes died with a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis or with compatible symptoms, according to the new figures. This is more than double the number reported between June 23 and February 21 of this year: 9,573. A total of 86,219 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in senior residences since the beginning of the pandemic. Of this number, nearly 69,000 were detected in 2020. According to the figures, 23.7% of seniors who tested positive for the coronavirus last year died. This number, however, is likely to be much higher as many residents died without being tested for the coronavirus due to the shortage of tests, and were not included in the official toll. With respect to 2021, 18.7% of the coronavirus cases in senior residences did not survive the virus.

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According to sources from Imserso, three key moments of the pandemic are reflected in the data. “The first phase was between March and June, when senior residences were severely impacted. Afterward, there were more resources, the information improved and with the preventive work carried out in the centers, the impact was reduced, but still serious. And there is a third stage from the end of January, one month after Christmas, when the impact of the vaccination drive can be seen,” explain these sources.

According to the Health Ministry report released on Wednesday, Spain has recorded more than 70,000 deaths after a positive Covid infection was detected. It is difficult to compare this figure to the death toll in senior residences due to the underreporting during the first wave. But comparisons can be made from June, when Spain’s diagnostic capacity and reporting improved. The Health Ministry reported 38,776 fatalities between June and February 21. Of this figure, one in four (9,782) were registered in senior residences.

Madrid is the Spanish region that has recorded the highest number of deaths in senior homes, with 6,187 fatalities, according to the new data. It is followed by Catalonia (5,418), Castilla y León (3,987) and Castilla-La Mancha (2,803).

‘Enormous error’

The data on deaths in senior homes reflects the severity of the health crisis in Spain. The healthcare system in the regions hardest hit by the virus was completely overwhelmed, and many senior residents died without receiving medical attention. In Madrid, for instance, there were even protocols advising against transferring care home residents to hospitals.

“Residences were left until very late and it was an enormous error,” says Eloísa del Pino, who leads a project called Mc Covid-19 which analyzes how government and care homes managed the crisis in 15 countries in the European Union. According to Del Pino, “the protocols designed by the Health Ministry were difficult to apply in residences, which do not work like hospitals.”

“Residences have been especially impacted because they group over-80s, with lots of pre-existing pathologies,” explains Joseba Zalakain, the director of the Center of Documentation and Research on Social Services and Social Policy (SIIS). “They are places where lots of workers are coming and going and are vectors of transmission. And the residents lead a communal life, they share spaces, utensils.”

He adds: “We estimate that we are one of the countries where the highest percentage of residents have died, between 7% and 9%. But there are countries like Belgium and Scotland [which is part of the United Kingdom], where the figure is more than 9%. And many are around 4% and 5%.”

Five Spanish regions report no new coronavirus cases

The number of coronavirus cases in senior residences has plummeted in a month thanks to the Covid-19 vaccination drive. According to an Imserso report, new infections fell 94% between January 24 and February 21. What’s more, five regions – Asturias, Cantabria, Murcia, Navarre and La Rioja – did not record a single new coronavirus case between February 15 and 21, the last week included in the report. During this period, another five regions – Andalusia, the Balearic Islands, Extremadura, Madrid and the Basque Country – recorded fewer than 10 new infections, and several regions reported no Covid-19-related fatalities.

Last Friday, for the first time since the summer, senior residences in Catalonia did not record a single death. According to the regional health department, 88% of residents in care homes have received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine and 94% have received the first.

With reporting by Bernat Coll.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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