Spain rushes to vaccinate younger age groups as coronavirus cases rise

Regions are also bringing forward the second doses for the 60-69 population due to concerns over the spread of the delta variant

People wait in line to be vaccinated outside Isabel Zendal Hospital in Madrid.
People wait in line to be vaccinated outside Isabel Zendal Hospital in Madrid.A. Pérez Meca (Europa Press)
Jessica Mouzo

Spain’s regions are rushing to vaccinate younger age groups as coronavirus cases rise and concern grows over the spread of the more infectious delta variant. The vaccination of the 30-39 population is speeding up, and some regions – which are in charge of the Covid-19 immunization drive as well as controlling the pandemic in their territories – have even begun inoculating people in their twenties. These two age groups account for the majority of new coronavirus infections in Spain.

The incidence rate in Spain is on an upward trend after months of sustained falls. According to the Health Ministry report, released Monday evening, the 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants now stands at 100. The rising number of contagions among young people has put the regions on alert. Of particular concern is the outbreak linked to students returning from vacation in Mallorca, which has led to 1,000 new cases in eight regions.

In the Canary Islands, the recent spike in infections has prompted the regional government to bring forward the vaccination of the 30-39 age group. The archipelago has also begun to vaccinate 24 hours a day at the Santiago Martín Pavilion in La Laguna, Tenerife. On Monday, Madrid authorities also launched a 24-hour vaccination drive at Isabel Zendal Hospital. Madrid is only administering 85% of all vaccines it receives – the lowest figure of all Spain’s 17 regions and far below the national average of 92%.

On Monday, the Balearic islands of Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera began vaccinating the 16-29 age group, while Mallorca continues to immunize people aged between 30 and 34. Galicia and Asturias have also opened the vaccination drive to people in their thirties. Catalonia began vaccinating people aged between 35 and 39 last week, and will move on to the 30-34 age group. The Catalan government began scheduling vaccinations for three different age groups in less than three weeks after realizing how difficult it was to achieve 80% coverage for each demographic. The region has not ruled out opening the drive to the under-30s and is also scheduling appointments for people who will study or work overseas long term.

In the Basque Country, health authorities are continuing to vaccinate people in their 30s. The regional government is also considering vaccinating students on the Erasmus exchange program following a student protest.

Threat of delta variant

All Spanish regions are also rushing to administer the second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, which are needed for full protection. This comes amid growing fears over the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, which was first detected in India last year and is up to 60% more contagious, according to the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC). The ECDC forecasts that the delta strain will account for 90% of all new infections in Europe by the end of August. What’s more, according to data from authorities in the United Kingdom – where the strain is already predominant – the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are only 35% effective against the variant if only one dose has been administered. In the case of alpha strain, first detected in the UK, this figure is 50%.

With full vaccination, Covid-19 vaccines are similarly effective against the delta strain as the alpha, according to the data. This has prompted regional authorities in Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha, Galicia, Catalonia, Murcia, Andalusia and Valencia to bring forward the second shots for the 60-69 population, who are receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. Under the Health Ministry’s guidelines, the second dose of this medication should be administered three months after the first as studies have shown this boosts a person’s immune response. But these regions are reducing this period to between 11 and eight weeks in a bid to increase vaccination coverage for the 60-69 population, which is one of the groups most at risk of developing a serious case of Covid-19. According to the latest figures, 58.8% of people in this demographic have not yet received their second shot.

“It gives the impression that we have not progressed very far in the last weeks. And that is very striking given that vaccination records have been broken in the past few days,” said Alberto Infante, professor of international health at the Carlos III Health Institute, in reference to the 733,000 doses administered last Thursday.

In the past two weeks, the percentage of the 40-49 age group who have received their first dose has doubled, standing now at 62%. But the percentage of the 60-69 and 50-59 population who have received their second shot has not risen by as much.

“We have to speed up as much as possible the second doses of vulnerable groups. It is urgent that we avoid serious illness and the risk of being admitted into intensive care,” said Infante.

According to data from the Health Ministry, the delta variant currently accounts for 2.7% of new contagions, but experts say this is much higher. In Catalonia, the regional government said that the strain was responsible for 32% of infections reported last week.

Experts agree that the vaccination drive must focus on two goals: fully vaccinating vulnerable groups and speeding up the immunization of younger people, who account for most new contagions.

“The delta variant is spreading and it is more contagious. It is very important that the population, especially those most vulnerable, get the second dose,” explained Ángela Domínguez from the Spanish Epidemiology Society. “The other front is young people, we have to make progress with them.”

Since the beginning of the vaccination campaign last December, Spain has administered nearly 40 million doses. More than half of the population have received at least one dose, and 35% – 16.6 million people – are fully vaccinated. Last Friday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that Spain will receive more than six million doses this week – a big rise from previous shipments.

With reporting by Juan Navarro, Sonia Vizoso, María Fabra, Eva Saiz, Isabel Valdés, Lucía Bohórquez, Guillermo Vega, Bernat Coll and Pedro Gorospe.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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