Spain’s vaccination drive moves to teenagers amid fears of delta strain

Experts warn that due to new variants, 90% of the population needs to be fully vaccinated to achieve herd immunity – a figure that cannot be reached with immunizing the under-20s

An adolescent receives his first shot of a Covid-19 vaccine in Barcelona.
An adolescent receives his first shot of a Covid-19 vaccine in Barcelona.MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI

Vaccination centers in Spain are now filling up with teenagers who, accompanied by their parents, are waiting to get their first shot of a Covid-19 vaccine. Ten of Spain’s regions – which are in charge of the immunization drive as well as containing the pandemic in their territories – are now vaccinating the 12-19 population. The only regions that are not yet vaccinating the under-20s on a large scale are Cantabria, Castilla y León, Valencia, Extremadura, Galicia and La Rioja.

The 12-19 age group is made up of 3.8 million people, 17.9% of whom have already received their first dose. If the vaccine rollout follows the expected speed, most adolescents will be fully vaccinated in time for the start of the new school year.

In Catalonia, the regional government opened the vaccination drive to the 12-15 age group on Wednesday. Lining up that day in Barcelona to get their first shots were brothers Óscar and Pablo Pons, aged 15 and 13 respectively. “I was a bit scared at the beginning, but it went perfectly, you almost don’t notice it when they inject you,” said one. “We were eager to get vaccinated,” added the other.

Spain’s regions are also continuing to vaccinate the 30-50 population, most of whom are receiving their second shot, and the 20-29 age group, half of whom have already received their first dose. Spain continues to have one of the highest shares of fully vaccinated people of the world’s large countries, with 58.6% of the population completely immunized.

The waiting room of the vaccination center at the Fira de Barcelona convention center.
The waiting room of the vaccination center at the Fira de Barcelona convention center. MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI (EL PAÍS)

The risk of teenagers developing a serious case of Covid-19 is very low, but not non-existent. According to the latest figures from the Carlos III Health Institute, since June 22, 2020, 878 people between the ages of 10 and 19 have been hospitalized with Covid-19. Of this figure, 160 required intensive care and 17 died.

Ángel Hernández Merino, from the vaccine advisory committee of the Spanish Pediatric Society, says this is a “very low” number when compared to older age groups, but “very high” in terms of the social cost. For this reason, most Western countries are opting to vaccinate adolescents.

In the United Kingdom, however, authorities are so far only immunizing 16- and 17-year-olds and younger teens with health conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid-19. British experts believe that it is not clear whether the risks of the vaccine outweigh the benefits. One of their concerns, among others, is that isolated cases of pericarditis (inflammation of the fibrous sac surrounding the heart) and myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) – both generally mild – have been detected among adolescents following vaccination.

But until a strong link between the vaccine and these adverse effects is established, Hernández Merino says the risk of the coronavirus is much greater. “It is difficult to make some families understand this, because if they think the risk of infection is small, they give little importance to the risks from contagion,” he explained.

Group immunity

The move to vaccinate teenagers comes amid growing concerns over how the spread of the more contagious coronavirus strains, such as the delta, will affect the effort to reach group immunity.

Spain is on track to meet its goal of fully vaccinating 70% of the population by mid-August, but experts warn that due to the new variants, this figure now needs to be above 90%. “Reaching herd immunity without them [adolescents] is practically impossible,” explained Manuel Franco, the spokesperson for the Spanish Public Health Society.

Even so, it will be difficult to fully vaccinate more than 80% of the population given that no vaccine has been yet approved for the under-12s (who represent 11% of the population), and that an estimated 4% of people are against vaccination, while others either have little interest in doing so or are unable to, for example, due to health problems or difficulties accessing the healthcare system.

While transmission rates are easing, Spain continues to report thousands of new coronavirus cases. According to the latest Health Ministry report, 21,874 new infections were recorded on Wednesday, and 71 deaths were added to the official toll. The 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants now stands at 653, down 20 points since Tuesday. The Balearic Islands continue to have the highest incidence rate, with 904 cases per 100,000, followed by Navarre (766) and La Rioja (756).

Contagions among the 20-29 population also continue to spike. On Wednesday, the 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 among this group came in at 1,387 – up 171 points in just one day. A total of 10,184 people are in hospital with Covid-19 and 20.76% of all intensive care beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 4,545,184 people have contracted the virus, while the official death toll stands at 81,844.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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