The Spanish Health Ministry has adapted the guidelines on detecting and controlling the coronavirus to address the latest threat from the pandemic: the omicron variant. Two cases of the strain have so far been detected in Madrid, and on Wednesday the Balearic Islands confirmed a third case: a resident of Mallorca who arrived in Spain after traveling to South Africa.
In a bid to curb the spread of the variant, the Spanish Health Ministry on Wednesday updated its Strategy for Early Detection, Monitoring and Control of Covid to include new rules for omicron. Under these measures, close contacts of a suspected or confirmed case of the omicron variant will have to quarantine for 10 days even if they are fully vaccinated.
The document – which acts as an instruction manual for the regions when a coronavirus case is detected – states that close contacts who are completely immunized do not have to self-isolate. The Health Ministry, however, yesterday added several exemptions: the immunocompromised, the close contacts of people infected with the virus by minks and the close contacts of confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus caused by the omicron, beta or gamma variants.
“The confirmation of this type of variant is not usually available when the diagnosis is made. That’s why this measure must also be applied to those cases that are suspected either due to preliminary information from a specific PCR test, or because the case is part of an outbreak that includes cases from said variants,” the document reads. Certain brands of PCR tests can flag up different variants of the coronavirus, although genomic sequencing remains the benchmark for their identification.
The appearance of the omicron variant, first detected in South Africa a week ago, has health authorities across the world on alert. The scientific evidence on its potential danger is still very limited, but researchers have discovered that the strain contains more than 30 mutations. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers it a variant of concern, meaning it could be more contagious, virulent or able to escape the protection provided by Covid-19 vaccines or the antibodies produced after recovering from the virus.
In a bid to contain the spread of the mutation, the European Union, the United States, Israel and Morocco, among other countries, rushed to close their borders with southern Africa. But this measure has not contained the strain: at least 23 countries have so far detected cases of the omicron variant.
In Spain, a third case of the strain was detected on Wednesday in Mallorca in Spain’s Balearic Islands. The microbiology laboratory of the Son Espases University Hospital in Palma confirmed, via PCR test, the omicron variant in a woman who had arrived in Spain on Wednesday from South Africa, after a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, reports Lucía Bohórquez. The woman was traveling with her husband, who tested negative. Both, however, are under quarantine. The two confirmed cases in Madrid were also found in travelers arriving from South Africa.
In Catalonia, another two suspected cases of the omicron variant have been detected in Barcelona’s El Prat airport, but have yet to be confirmed. The Catalan health chief, Josep Maria Argimon, also told the Catalan parliament on Tuesday that his department may have detected the omicron variant in wastewater in Catalonia, reports Bernat Coll. The results, however, are not yet final and further analysis will be carried out over the next few days to confirm if this is the case.
In response to the global concerns, Toni Trilla, the head of epidemiology at Clínic Hospital in Barcelona, has called for calm. “The real worry for me right now is the delta variant, which is rising and will probably continue to increase contagions, although serious cases will not rise in parallel thanks to the vaccination. If this new variant enters the game, we will send the same message as with delta,” he said. That message calls on the public to get vaccinated, wear face masks, avoid crowds and act with “prudence.” “This is valid for the entire Greek alphabet [of coronavirus variants],” said Trilla, who added that it is “highly unlikely that the vaccines fail 100%.” “It’s quite likely that omicron is the most widespread we have seen, but it is speculation that it will replace the delta or escape vaccines,” he explained.
Faced with the threat of the new variant, world leaders have opted to boost vaccination against Covid-19, a process which is moving at different speeds: in Portugal, 81% of the population is fully vaccinated, while in Germany and Bulgaria, this figure is just 68% and 25%, respectively. Indeed, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, opened the door on Wednesday to introducing mandatory vaccination in the EU. “I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now, how we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the EU,” she said. Starting December 13, Germany will also begin vaccinating children between the ages of five and 11, said Germany’s acting health minister, Jens Spahn. This is one week earlier than initially scheduled.
In Spain, close to 80% of the population is fully vaccinated, but there is still room for improvement. The regions, which are in charge of their healthcare systems, the Covid-19 vaccination drive and their coronavirus restrictions, are hoping a boost in vaccination numbers will help curb the ongoing rise in cases.
According to the latest figures from the Health Ministry, released Wednesday evening, the 14-day incidence rate in Spain now stands at 217 cases per 100,000 – a rise of nearly nine points since Tuesday. Navarre continues to have the highest incidence rate, with 622 cases per 100,000. It is followed by the Basque Country, with 521 cases, and Aragón, with 403. This data point rose on Wednesday in all of Spain’s 17 regions, except Catalonia, where it fell by eight points. By age group, transmission rates are highest among the under-12 population, who are not yet able to get vaccinated against Covid-19. In this age bracket, the incidence rate is 343 cases per 100,000.
The Health Ministry reported 10,536 new cases on Wednesday and added 28 deaths to the official toll, which now stands at 88,080. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 5,174,720 coronavirus infections have been detected.
As cases rise so too have hospital admissions for Covid-19. According to the latest figures, 3,957 Covid-19 patients are currently in hospital, 110 more than on Tuesday. This uptick is also reflected in Spain’s intensive care units (ICUs), where the occupancy rate rose three decimal points to 8.07%. This means that eight in every 100 ICU patients has Covid-19.
Madrid Christmas plan
The Madrid region announced on Wednesday a series of measures that it will put into place ahead of the Christmas season in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus. These include a free antigen test for every inhabitant, the reactivation of the self-appointment system for vaccinations, and a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine for the over-60s. Speaking yesterday to explain the plan, regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party (PP) also stated that children aged between five and 11 would also be vaccinated, despite the fact that approval for such inoculations is yet to be granted on a national level by the central health authorities.
Ayuso explained that the antigen tests would be made available “so that in the case of social gatherings, they can be held in a safe way.” The regional government will purchase four million of these tests, which will be available in pharmacies from December 15 onward. Inhabitants of the region will just have to show their health cards to be given a kit. The region ran a similar scheme during the early months of the pandemic with face masks.
From December 2, people in the region aged between 60 and 69 will be able to get an appointment for a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Citizens can either use the Tarjeta Sanitaria Virtual (Virtual Health Card) application on their cellphones to do so or via the regional health website.
On a national scale, more than 5.1 million people have already received a booster shot of a Covid-19 vaccine so far. The campaign is focusing on the over-70s for this inoculation at the moment, as well as vulnerable people and healthcare workers. In some regions, the over-60s are already eligible for the shots.
According to the latest Health Ministry data, 79.3% of Spain’s entire population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19. In terms of the target population – i.e. those aged over 12, given that vaccines have not been authorized yet below that age range – 89.3% have been fully vaccinated.
ICU cases in Leganés
Also in the Madrid region, four members of the same family who are unvaccinated against Covid-19 were reported by regional TV station Telemadrid and confirmed by news agency EFE to be in the intensive care unit (ICU) of Severo Ochoa Hospital in the southwestern Madrid city of Leganés. The members of the family are aged between 40 and 70 and were on Wednesday “sedated and intubated” due to the severity of their infections.
A fifth member of the family was also hospitalized, but was yesterday in a normal ward. Sources from the hospital stated that the 70-year-old grandmother, however, may have to be taken to the ICU given her associated pathologies.
The hospital insisted on the need for vaccination against Covid-19, given that 57% of infections and 51% of hospitalizations since the fifth wave began in mid-June were unvaccinated patients, according to the latest epidemiological report from the regional health department.
In the last week, there have been 23 outbreaks in the Madrid region with 94 associated cases, the majority of which were due to meetings or celebrations in private homes.