Fifth coronavirus wave hits Spain’s prisons

An anti-vaxxer inmate has sparked an outbreak in a prison in Gran Canaria, with 77 cases recorded, while 10 other penitentiaries have also reported upticks in infections

Covid in Spain
Picassent prison in Valencia, where 155 coronavirus cases have been detected.Kai Försterling (EFE)

The fifth wave of coronavirus infections in Spain is hitting prisons hard, despite the fact that a high percentage of inmates are vaccinated against Covid-19. According to union sources, 11 penitentiaries have recorded coronavirus outbreaks among prisoners in the last few weeks, with entire modules forced to isolate in some cases.

One of the fastest-spreading outbreaks is in Las Palmas II prison, located on Gran Canaria in Spain’s Canary Islands. As of Wednesday, 77 infections had been recorded among inmates, but this figure is likely to rise as the results of PCR tests on more prisoners come back, say sources from Spain’s prison authority. The outbreak came to light last week after an inmate came down with a high fever. This prisoner had refused to get immunized “because he didn’t trust” Covid-19 vaccines. According to prison sources, less than 3% of the 47,000 prisoners in Spain have refused to be vaccinated.

The largest coronavirus outbreak is in the Picassent prison in Valencia, where 155 cases have been detected

Anselmo Pastrana, the central government’s delegate in the Canary Islands, said on Wednesday that 100% of all prison workers and 90% of inmates are vaccinated. The reason why some prisoners are not immunized “is because they have refused to receive the vaccine, and so the outbreak has begun via people who have not been vaccinated,” he said. According to Spain’s prison authority, the inmate at Las Palmas II prison began to feel sick last Thursday and was given an antigen test, which came back positive. When the diagnosis was confirmed by a PCR test the following day, the module was isolated immediately, say penitentiary sources. The inmate is currently admitted into the prison’s healthcare services, but does not have a serious case of Covid-19, the sources say, adding that the rest of the cases detected have been mild or asymptomatic.

But the largest coronavirus outbreak is in the Picassent prison in Valencia, which is the biggest in Spain. A total of 155 cases have been detected at the penitentiary, all of which are mild or asymptomatic.

Other outbreaks were also recorded last week in the prisons of Fontcalent in Alicante (125 cases), Algeciras in Cádiz (80 cases), Zaballa in Álava (16) and Madrid II-Alcalá (22). In previous weeks, outbreaks also took place in Puerto III prison in Cádiz and Soto del Real penitentiary in Madrid, which are now considered under control. “Prisons are a reflection of what is happening with the disease on the outside. If there are waves in society, there will also be waves in prisons,” said the Interior Ministry.

Spain’s central prison authority does not have a centralized registry of prison worker vaccination, as regional governments are responsible for the immunization drive. Alberto Téllez, the health chief of the prison workers’ union Acaip-UGT, estimates that between 90-95% of staff and 90% of the inmates are fully vaccinated. Prisoners who are more problematic are also most likely to refuse the vaccines, he says. Téllez adds that penitentiaries are not closed off from the world, with volunteers and external workers entering every day. Prisoners also receive visitors, while some are also allowed to go on day leave.

Alberto Infante, a professor at the National Health School at the Carlos III Health Institute, warns this is “the perfect scenario for contagions to spread.” “If there are anti-vaxxers, we have to recommend that they wear a face mask, at least. But I understand that managing prisoners who don’t want to do things is very difficult and I don’t know how you would convince them to use a face mask,” he says.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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