Spain rushes to vaccinate under-30s amid surge in coronavirus cases

Eight regions, as well as the exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla, have opened the vaccination drive to younger age groups in a bid to curb the rising number of infections

Vacunacion covid
A health worker administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Madrid.JAVIER BARBANCHO (REUTERS)
Oriol Güell

The rapid spread of the delta strain of the coronavirus in Spain has led to a surge in coronavirus cases among young unvaccinated people. In just a few weeks, this spike has reversed the downward trend Spain had been registering since the end of April. Hospitals in regions such as Catalonia are now seeing double the number of Covid-19 patients than they did at the end of June (nearly 1,000), while some centers are reopening spaces for intensive care units (ICUs) that had previously been closed.

Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), warned on Monday that “the incidence rate among the unvaccinated is up to 20 times greater than that of the vaccinated,” and this presents a risk for the rest of the population. He said that this was a “dramatic situation” considering the two groups could mix when the vaccinated person had still not developed immunity as a Covid-19 vaccine does not take effect immediately.

The most vulnerable group is those aged 60 to 69, who are receiving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. This medication requires a longer interval between the first and second shots than the other vaccines being used in Spain. The waiting period was initially set at 12 weeks, but some regions have reduced it to eight weeks. Even so, this is much longer than the three-week interval between the two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

As a result of this long waiting period, only 70% of the 60-69 age group has received both doses, according to the latest Health Ministry report, released on Monday. In contrast, 98% of the over-70s and 83% of the 50-59 population are fully vaccinated. A total of 58% of the population (27.5 million people) has had at least one vaccine shot, while 44.3% (nearly 21 million) are fully vaccinated.

The rise in coronavirus cases among young people has prompted the regions – which are in charge of coronavirus measures and their vaccination campaigns – to reintroduce restrictions. In Valencia, the regional government has been granted court approval to reintroduce a curfew in 32 municipalities and is considering more measures. Catalonia shut down all indoor nightclubs last week and on Monday approved the closure of all non-essential activities at 12.30am. Eight regions, as well as the exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla, have also started vaccinating the under-30s in a bid to curb the rise in contagions, which is considered to be a fifth wave.

Madrid opens drive to over-16s

Madrid on Monday made its self-appointment service for vaccination available to the over-16s. This system was opened to the 25-29 population last Friday, and in a matter of hours, more than 120,000 people in this age group had requested appointments. The Madrid region last week also started vaccinating students on the Erasmus exchange program who will study abroad next school term. The Madrid premier, Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party (PP), is also continuing with her plan to involve private companies in the vaccination drive. Five businesses – airline Iberia Europ-Assistance, insurance company Santalucía, the Spanish lender Banco Santander, retail giant El Corte Inglés and infrastructure business Acciona – are now part of the campaign.

Catalonia opened the vaccination drive to adolescents and the 20-29 age group two weeks ago. While few appointments were available at first, the number has steadily increased amid the surge in coronavirus infections among young people. One in 40 people between the ages of 20 and 29 – an incidence rate of close to 2,500 cases per 100,000 – currently has the virus or has contracted it in the last two weeks.

A health worker administers a vaccine in Barcelona.
A health worker administers a vaccine in Barcelona.Marta Pérez (EFE)

In the Balearic Islands, the immunization drive was opened to the 16-29 population at the end of June. So far, 56,400 people in this age group have received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, 30% of the total. The region is also continuing to vaccinate the 30-39 and 40-49 populations, of whom 43% and 68% have received at least one shot, respectively.

The Canary Islands have also made good progress with the younger age groups. One in 10 people in their twenties and 3.5% of adolescents have had one shot. The smallest islands in the archipelago – La Gomera, El Hierro and La Graciosa – have advanced the furthest with the vaccination of this population.

Extremadura is another region where the vaccination drive is progressing at a good pace. According to a spokesperson from the regional government, Extremadura began immunizing the 20-29 population in primary healthcare centers of small towns “more than a week ago,” and “this week will begin to vaccinate this age group across the board in central points in the big cities.”

The Spanish exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa are also in the lead when it comes to the vaccination of young people, who make up a large part of the population in these territories. The cities also have much smaller populations compared to the regions, meaning the drive is happening at a faster pace.

The Basque Country started scheduling vaccination appointments for the 16-29 population (around 270,000 people in total) on Friday. The booking system – both online and via telephone – was down for hours due to the overwhelming demand, with 78,300 youngsters trying to make an appointment. The region will begin vaccinating these age groups on Wednesday, although this will not happen on a mass scale until July 20. The Basque Country is administering an average of 23,000 doses a day as it tries to reach the goal of having 70% of the regional population vaccinated by mid-August (the figure is currently 50%).

Castilla-La Mancha is expected to open the vaccination drive to the over-16s this week. It is currently administering 150,000 shots a week, a pace that has enabled it to fully vaccinate 50% of the population – around 913,000 people.

Navarre began scheduling vaccination appointments for the 20-29 population last week. According to the regional health chief, Santos Induráin, this age group was not initially expected to get their first shots until the end of July. But like other regions, Navarre decided to start making appointments for younger people, although they may be in one or two weeks’ time.

In Valencia, four in 10 doses administered this week will go to the 30-39 population. The regional government is aiming to vaccinate all over-18s by the end of August. It has also pushed forward the immunization of Erasmus students, who began to receive their first shots last week. “The incidence among young people is much higher than the average in the general population and although youngsters tend to have less serious symptoms, we are going to extend the vaccination drive toward younger people,” said Ana Barceló, the regional health chief, on Monday.

No change of plans

The regional government of Andalusia, on the other hand, has made no changes to its vaccination schedule. Despite the rise in infections, the immunization of young people has not been brought forward nor has the region introduced new restrictions on nightlife venues, which can remain open until 2am. The premier of Andalusia, Juan Manuel Moreno, said on Monday: “It is very difficult to stem the tide, you can’t lock young people up unless you introduce a curfew. In the end, if young people are not going to go to regulated and organized venues with rules and opening hours, they are going to go to a park, a beach, a warehouse or the house of a friend.”

Andalusia has, however, vaccinated 11,000 Erasmus students. People aged between 20 and 31 can also get vaccinated in the region. In the meantime, the virus is continuing to spread – on Monday, the incidence rate rose 20 points to 279 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, according to data from the regional government. The vaccination drive in Andalusia and the other regions is expected to slow down this week, as the number of doses received will be 44% lower than what it was last week.

Cantabria, Asturias, Murcia, La Rioja and Castilla y León also have no plans to push forward the vaccination of younger age groups, although, in the latter, under-30s have already begun to get their first shots. Asturias has started to vaccinate Erasmus students and, in accordance with the order of descending age, people under the age of 35. La Rioja, meanwhile, will begin to immunize the 35-39 age group of some healthcare zones this week.

In Galicia, only university students set to study abroad will be vaccinated at this time. The rest will have to wait until “September or October,” according to the premier of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo. This is despite the fact that contagions have risen fourfold in the region. Núñez Feijóo called on families “to persuade young people to maintain the same precautions as last summer because, as there are not enough vaccines the risk of contagion is the same, only with more variants that are more contagious.” He apologized for the situation but said, one “cannot tell a 35-year-old person that they have less priority than a 25-year-old.”

With reporting from María Fabra, Silvia R. Pontevedra, Mikel Ormazabal, Juan Navarro, Javier Martín-Arroyo, Bernat Coll, Lucía Bohórquez and Isabel Valdés.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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