Average age of Spain’s critical Covid-19 patients drops by three years

Experts point to wide vaccination of older adults and to the new coronavirus strain first detected in Britain, which affects younger people more intensely

The intensive care unit at Madrid's Ramón y Cajal Hospital.Samuel Sanchez
Pablo Linde

The average age of Covid-19 patients in Spain is getting younger. Although several factors may be at work, experts agree that the vaccination drive is playing a role.

Health Ministry figures show that the average age of positive cases has dropped from 42 to 40 years since the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic early this year. And the average age of Covid-19 patients in intensive care has fallen from 63 to 60.

Unlike neighboring European countries, Spain’s Health Ministry does not break down figures on Covid-19 hospital admissions or deaths by age. The Carlos III Health Institute provides some more detail, but these numbers are published too late to provide an accurate picture of the present moment. It is therefore not possible to know which age groups are predominant at hospitals and morgues, but data available from diagnoses, critical care and the day-to-day experience of healthcare professionals indicate there are fewer older patients now than before vaccines became available.

Among the younger patients, obesity is increasingly an accompanying factor

“We are finding very few cases above 80 years of age [this group has been almost completely immunized by now],” notes Germán Peces-Barba, a pulmonologist at the Madrid hospital Fundación Jiménez Díaz and spokesperson for the Spanish Pulmunology Society. “There are still some in their sixties and seventies, but in terms of percentages we are seeing growth in the 30-to-60 age range.” Peces-Barba says that if the average age “has always been around 65,” right now, it is closer to 60.

Alejandro Rodríguez, of the Spanish Society for Intensive and Critical Medicine and Coronary Units (Semicyuc) has the same impression. He also adds that among the younger patients, obesity is increasingly an accompanying factor.

Although there are no precise numbers on the age of patients admitted to hospital and those who die of Covid-19, several epidemiologists agree that vaccination is playing a role in why the average age of patients is falling, even if it is too soon to give vaccines all the credit. Nearly all the 80-and-over population have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while just under 50% of the 70-79 age group have had the first shot.

Vaccines are also thought to be flattening the infection curve: on Friday the 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants was 235 cases, while over 10 million people had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Some experts suspect that the coronavirus variant first detected in Britain, which is now the predominant strain in Spain, may also be playing a role. Antoni Trilla, head of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Barcelona’s Clínic Hospital, says it is possible that this strain, which is circulating more among younger people, is more “explosive” and may accelerate worsening symptoms.

According to this newspaper’s estimates based on the government’s projected vaccine shipments, everyone over the age of 60 could receive both doses by the end of May. If so, this would likely represent a turning point in an epidemic, given that over 95% of victims are above that age.

Strained ICUs

In the meantime, hospital intensive care units (ICUs) are still far from a normal situation. The number of ICU beds occupied by Covid-19 patients is close to 23%, although there are significant differences between regions: in Murcia, it is 3.5% while in Madrid, it is 44.3%. And this number is not based on structural bed availability but on total capacity in case of an emergency. Counting Covid and non-Covid patients, Madrid’s ICUs are practically at 100% of capacity.

The epidemiologist Anna Llupiá says it is difficult to know precisely why ICUs continue to be so strained even though the number of cases is holding steady, although the newer, more aggressive strain could be a cause. In any case, she says that the disease will continue to spread despite the vaccination campaign unless other measures remain in force.

Blood clot death probe

The Health Ministry is investigating the death of a 35-year-old member of a specialized mountain unit of the Spanish army, the Regimiento de Infantería América 66 de Cazadores de Montaña, based in Aizoáin, Navarre.

F.P.B. suffered a thrombosis and cerebral hemorrhaging 17 days after being inoculated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The case is being investigated for possible ties with the vaccine, whose use was temporarily paused in early April while European health regulators probed several reports of associated blood clots.

English version by Susana Urra.

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