CORONAVIRUS

Use of masks outdoors in Spain could be relaxed in the coming days, health official announces

The coronavirus measure could soon be relaxed provided epidemiological data continues to improve and other restrictions stay in place, says the government’s chief epidemiologist Fernando Simón

Men wearing face masks chat in the Lineal del Manzanares park in Madrid, in a file photo from March.
Men wearing face masks chat in the Lineal del Manzanares park in Madrid, in a file photo from March.Andrea Comas

As the country’s coronavirus data improves thanks to the vaccination drive, the Spanish Health Ministry is considering reducing some of the Covid-19 restrictions that are currently in place. That’s according to Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), who held a press conference on Monday evening to present the latest report on the epidemic. The government’s chief epidemiologist announced that “it is very possible” that the obligatory use of masks outdoors will be revised “in just a few days.”

He continued saying that he would “not give a date” for the deescalation of this particular measure, but that “it is true that it is possible that we will not take long to be able to make clear proposals for retracting the use of masks in specific situations.” But he warned that this “does not mean that the rest of the measures will not be left in place.”

Simón explained that the relaxation of measures will depend on how the country’s average incidence of the virus progresses. According to Monday’s report, the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants is now 152. If it falls below the 150-mark this would mean that Spain will have gone from a situation of high risk to medium risk. The last time that Spain was below this figure was on March 30, at a time when it looked like a fourth wave might be about to hit the country. In the end, the vaccination drive and ongoing social restrictions saw that a serious spike did not materialize.

To calculate the overall epidemiological risk, a number of other factors are taken into account. These include occupation of the country’s intensive care units (ICUs), which continues to be at high risk with 18.6% of such beds currently occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Reaching the medium risk level is one of the requirements that Simón specified would be necessary before the outdoor wearing of masks be suspended. He did not clarify whether this would be a blanket measure or would be applied on a region-by-region basis according to each territory’s epidemiological situation. “Giving dates is not a good idea, but giving situations is,” he said. “In a month we will have very favorable figures for the reduction of a lot of measures. Some could be reduced before, provided that others are kept in place.”

Many health experts have been calling for an end to mask-wearing outdoors for some time now, given that there is no evidence that their use when there are no crowds is effective. “A lot of alternatives can be considered with masks, we are evaluating those options,” the CCAES director explained. “There is one clear one: there is a group with very high vaccine coverage, which is people in residences. Measures can be considered for these groups before they are [implemented] in groups with a lower percentage of vaccination.”

State of alarm effect

For this favorable situation to arrive, it is first necessary to evaluate whether the recent end of the state of alarm – the emergency situation that gave the regions legal coverage to limit freedom of movement and impose curfews – has had an effect on infection rates. As Simón admitted last night, it is still too early to see any effect in the data, given that the state of alarm ended just last weekend. A potential spike from the increased socializing that was seen on the night of May 15 across Spain will be seen in the data in the coming days and during next week.

A law has been passed by parliament making masks mandatory in public while the pandemic lasts. In order for their compulsory use to be eliminated, the government will have to approve a royal decree in the Congress of Deputies.

According to last night’s report from the Health Ministry, a total of 11,061 new coronavirus infections were recorded from Friday to Sunday inclusive, while 93 Covid-19 fatalities were added to the overall death toll. The ministry has recorded 79,432 official victims since the pandemic began, and 3,615,860 infections. The real figures for these data points are likely to be much higher, however, given the lack of testing available at the outset of the crisis.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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