coronavirus

Covid variant first detected in UK now dominant strain in Spain

With the incidence rate continuing to rise and ICUs still under pressure, health authorities warn the country may be seeing a “possible change in trend”

A woman leaving a primary healthcare center in Madrid.
A woman leaving a primary healthcare center in Madrid.Eduardo Parra / Europa Press

The new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus that was first detected in the United Kingdom now accounts for half of all new coronavirus cases in Spain. Given that the strain – known as B.1.1.7 – is more contagious, it has been able to spread across the country and is now the dominant variant in Spain, said Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias on Wednesday. Speaking after a meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System, which brings together health officials from the central and regional governments, Darias warned that Spain is facing a “possible change in trend” as the incidence rate continues to rise. The news comes after the central government on Tuesday announced that it is lifting a ban on air and sea arrivals from the UK that had been in place since December in a bid to contain the B.1.1.7 variant.

According to the latest Health Ministry report, released on Wednesday, the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants now stands at 132.22, up from 129.55 on Tuesday. After two months of a downward trend, as the third wave of the pandemic subsided, this data point has been steadily rising since last Wednesday. On January 27, the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants peaked at 900.

The Health Ministry recorded 7,026 new coronavirus cases and added 320 deaths to the official toll, which now stands at 74,064

“We are at a decisive moment,” said Darias. “We must strengthen all control measures and reverse this trend.” Although the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System did not reach an agreement on Wednesday on whether the restrictions planned for Easter week should be tightened, it did indicate that the regions – which are in charge of handling the response to the pandemic in their territories – may choose to strengthen the measures if considered necessary.

In Wednesday’s report, the Health Ministry recorded 7,026 new coronavirus cases and added 320 deaths to the official toll, which now stands at 74,064. Eleven of Spain’s 17 regions, as well as the North African exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla, reported a rise in the incidence rate from last week. Melilla continues to have the highest 14-day cumulative number of cases (511), followed by Ceuta (253), Madrid (228) and the Basque Country (199). On the other end of the spectrum are the Balearic Islands, Valencia region, Extremadura, Galicia, Murcia and La Rioja, where the data point is below 100.

Darias warned that hospitals continue to be under pressure in many regions of Spain. While Covid-19 patients occupy 18.6% of all intensive care unit (ICU) beds in the country, this figure is more than 30% in Catalonia, Madrid and La Rioja. This percentage refers to total ICU capacity, including spaces in operating theaters. If only designated ICU beds are counted, the occupancy rate is closer to 100% in some regions.

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In Catalonia, for example, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs has not dropped below 400 since January 4. This is the threshold considered by the Catalan regional government to indicate a situation of extreme risk, given that such pressure may complicate hospital assistance and lead to the postponement of surgeries. “It’s hard to see the end,” said Xavier Esquirol, an intensivist at Granollers General hospital. “There are not enough intensivists and the pandemic has not let up. We are very tired.”

Meanwhile in Madrid, eight in 10 basic healthcare zones – areas that are smaller than a city district and can include several primary healthcare centers – are at high or extreme risk, according to the Health Ministry’s alert system.

With reporting by Bernat Coll and Isabel Valdés.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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