Coronavirus infections among young people in Spain continue to rise. Among those aged 20-29, the cumulative incidence is now 640 cases per 100,000 inhabitants – three times the national average, which stands at 204. But despite the surge in contagions, most youngsters must still wait to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Only five of Spain’s 17 regions – Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Navarre and Castilla-La Mancha – as well as the Spanish exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, have begun to inoculate those aged between 16 or 18 and 29.
The rest of Spain’s regions – which are in charge of their healthcare systems, vaccination drives and coronavirus restrictions – are focusing on the vaccination of the 30-39 population. And only Extremadura, Valencia and Galicia are immunizing students on the Erasmus exchange program who will study abroad during the upcoming school year. Cantabria has also announced that it will begin scheduling appointments for the latter group.
Experts warn that even if young people and adolescents were to receive the vaccine now, this would not immediately curb the upward trend of contagions, and say that priority must be given to those most at risk of the disease.
The spike in cases among young people has, however, prompted some regions to rush to vaccinate younger age groups. In Catalonia, which has the highest incidence rate in Spain, the vaccination drive was opened last week to the 16-29 age group. The decision came in response to the uncontrolled spread of the virus among the 20-29 population, which has a cumulative incidence of 1,500 cases per 100,000.
Authorities in Castilla-La Mancha started last Wednesday to make vaccination appointments for people aged between 20 and 29. And Navarre began last Friday to schedule shots for the 18-29 population, likely for the end of the month, due to the “notable rise in contagions.” The regional government in Navarre has also started to carry out mass testing of young people who return from destinations linked to nighttime venues, such as Salou in Tarragona.
The Canary and Balearic Islands have also begun to vaccinate younger age groups. In the Balearics, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera opened the drive to the 16-29 population on June 26, while Mallorca followed suit two days later. Last week, 41,000 youngsters in the archipelago made an appointment. Meanwhile, in the Canary Islands, all islands except for Tenerife and Gran Canaria are immunizing people aged 20-29. Indeed, according to a spokesperson from the regional health department, La Gomera and El Hierro will begin to vaccinate the over-16s on Tuesday, while in La Gomera, nearly the entire population is vaccinated – only 12 minors between 12 and 16 still need their shots.
Melilla has already begun vaccinating the 20-29 age group, while Ceuta opened the drive on Monday to people born in 2005 – in other words, 16 year olds. “We are waiting for authorization from the ministry to continue with younger ages,” said sources from the exclave, in reference to the under-12 population.
The Spanish government says its vaccination strategy outlined that the immunization of age groups under 40 could overlap. “It’s about not wasting a single dose and filling up the schedule,” said Silvia Calvón, the secretary of state for health, on Monday. “Spain has been able to vaccinate group by group due to the wide acceptance of the vaccines. Now we are at a moment where there is less difference in the risk faced by each group, it makes sense to overlap them.”
Although experts say speeding up the vaccination of younger groups is a good strategy given they are the most exposed to the virus, they warn that it will not have an immediate effect on contagion rates. “After the vaccine is administered, time is needed to acquire immunity. We will not see the effect for a few months,” explained José Martínez Olmos, a professor in the Andalusian School of Public Health. In order to cut transmission among young people, Martínez Olmos says a combination of measures is needed, such as “reducing the opening hours of nighttime venues, giving information to youngsters and educating them, and of course, vaccinating wherever possible.”
But epidemiologists warn that priority must still be given to the older population. “Age continues to be key, it is the biggest profile of vulnerability,” said Amós Garcia, president of the Spanish Vaccinology Association.
Spain has administered nearly 44 million doses and 56% of the population (26 million) have received at least one dose. A total of 40% of the Spanish population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19. But 45% of the 60-69 population and 20% of the 50-59 age group have not yet received the second shot needed for full protection. What’s more, 27% of people between the ages of 40 and 49 have not even received their first dose.
AstraZeneca shot to be brought forward
Ensuring the population is fully vaccinated is imperative given the growing spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, first detected in India. This strain is up to 60% more contagious and is set to become predominant by the end of August, according to the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC). What’s more, data from health authorities in the United Kingdom, where it is already predominant, indicate the variant is more resistant to Covid-19 vaccines if only one shot has been administered. While the first dose is 50% effective against the alpha strain, first detected in England, it is only 33% effective against the delta.
For this reason, Spain’s Public Health Commission, which is made up of the Health Ministry and representatives from the regions, will review the recommendation to administer the second dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine between 10 to 12 weeks after the first. The Health Ministry expects that the regions will agree to reduce this period to eight weeks – although according to the technical information for the medication, the interval can be reduced to as little as three. This decision to shorten the period between shots would speed up the vaccination of the 60-69 population, who are primarily receiving AstraZeneca.
In response to the spread of the delta variant, some regions, such as Catalonia, have already pushed the second shot forward to ensure people in their sixties are fully vaccinated against the virus.
The premier of Andalusia, Juan Manuel Moreno, said last Friday that despite the rise in contagions among people aged between 15 and 29, there are no plans to change the region’s vaccination strategy, as there are many people who still need their second shot. The Basque regional government also expressed concern about the spike in cases among youngsters, but said the priority is to complete the vaccination of the 30-49 population.
With reporting by Juan Navarro, Caridad Bermeo, Margot Molina, Mikel Ormazábal, Lucía Bohórquez, Jesús A. Cañas and María Fabra.
English version by Melissa Kitson.