Coronavirus in Spain: Why do I feel like more people around me have the virus than ever before?

There is a general perception that cases are soaring and that the real incidence is much higher than what is being reported. Could this be true?

A health worker performs a PCR test in Seville.
A health worker performs a PCR test in Seville.PACO PUENTES
Pablo Linde

Statistics show that the incidence of the coronavirus in Spain remains far below what it was during earlier waves, even if it continues to rise. The 14-day accumulated case rate is currently 473 per 100,000 people, which is much lower than the peaks of 899 during the third wave and 700 during the fifth.

And yet on social media, a lot of people are sharing their feeling that “there are a lot more positive cases among the people I know now than during the entire pandemic so far,” or that “never before had I seen so many cases among my acquaintances and in such a short space of time,” and that “I’ve heard of more positive cases in recent weeks than the entire rest of the year.”

Statistically, residents of Madrid, where the regional incidence rate is currently 391 per 100,000, should be noticing fewer cases around them than in earlier waves when the rate was in excess of 700 per 100,000. But the opposite appears to be true, at least through casual observation.

So what is going on?

Scientists underscore that subjective impressions are not always a good indicator of what’s going on in the world, particularly on health issues. The following are a few factors that could explain why official figures and personal impressions are not matching up.

Impact of public holidays

December 6 and 8 were public holidays in Spain, and coronavirus figures were not reported on those days. This means that official statistics may be under-reporting the real spread of the virus, and will not accurately reflect the reality until two weeks have elapsed. On December 23, we may see a sudden jump in the 14-day incidence rate, which is the standard measurement used in Spain.

If we instead look at the seven-day rate, which is 291 per 100,000, it grew 85% in a week, compared with growth of 54% in the 14-day figure. The long weekend may have also helped spread the virus due to the increase in social gatherings and trips. And experts are warning about the potential impact of the Christmas holidays.

Delay in diagnoses

Patricia (an assumed name for a real case) started to feel symptoms on Monday. She phoned her health center in the north of Madrid and got an appointment for December 21. By the time she gets tested, if the test comes back positive, she will be added to the statistics with a 10-day delay. Many health centers in Spain are reporting bottlenecks leading to similar delays, which make it impossible to provide an accurate real-time picture of the coronavirus situation.

Pharmacy tests

This is the first coronavirus wave when citizens can walk into a pharmacy and buy a test. The measure was approved in late July, when Spain was well into its fifth wave. Given the kinds of delays experienced at local health centers, many citizens are choosing to do their own testing outside the official channels. Even though positive cases should theoretically be reported to regional health authorities, not everybody is doing so. It is therefore impossible to know how many positives are going unreported.

A generational issue

The virus is not circulating with the same intensity among all age groups. It is currently spreading more among the under-12s (the incidence rate is 686 per 100,000 in this age group), as well as people in their thirties (550) and forties (582), two age groups that include many parents of school-age children. It is likely that people in these age groups or who are in contact with children have the feeling there are a lot of positive cases around them. For twentysomethings, this feeling was strong during the fifth wave, which most affected their age group.

A matter of geography

The virus does not spread the same way across the entire Spanish territory. There are considerable differences among the regions, and residents of Navarre (with a 14-day rate of 1,330) and the Basque Country (1,003) could be forgiven for thinking that there are more positive cases around them than in Andalusia (248) or Extremadura (296).

The omicron factor

All available data suggests that the new strain, though producing somewhat less severe cases of Covid-19, spreads a lot faster than the delta variant that is still predominant. In Spain, health authorities have only sequenced a handful of omicron cases, but it is a known fact that it is already spreading through community transmission, meaning that new cases are no longer tied to travel to high-risk countries. And, as usual, statistics are lagging behind reality. However, it is still too early to know to what degree the omicron variant is contributing to Spain’s rising incidence rate.

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