Coronavirus incidence in Spain now exceeds 600 cases per 100,000 as omicron gains ground

With transmission rates rising 60%, five regions are due to propose that outdoor masking be reintroduced, while Catalonia has proposed a curfew in its territory

People wait in line for a Covid test outside a private clinic in Barcelona.
People wait in line for a Covid test outside a private clinic in Barcelona.David Zorrakino (Europa Press)

The sixth wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Spain is gaining pace just ahead of the Christmas holidays. Over just one weekend, the 14-day incidence of cases jumped nearly 100 points to reach 609 infections per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the latest data released on Monday evening by the central Health Ministry. That’s a 60% rise on the previous week and a level not seen since the start of August.

With just four days to go until Christmas Eve, the epidemiological indicators put Spain at a very high risk of Covid transmission, according to the ministry’s own traffic light system. Meanwhile, pressure on the healthcare system is also growing, with 7,501 Covid-19 patients in hospital (occupying 6% of total beds), 1,442 of whom are in intensive care units. The ministry also reported 79,704 new infections and 85 Covid-related deaths. Since the pandemic reached Spain, 5,535,231 infections have been detected, while the death toll stands at 88,793.

Given the current explosion of new cases, the central government has called a meeting of regional premiers for this Wednesday in order to “evaluate” new restrictions. The regions are in charge of their healthcare systems, vaccination drives and coronavirus measures. For now, Catalonia is the region to take the strictest action, announcing on Monday that it wants to put a curfew in place, limit social meetings to 10 people and close nightlife venues from Friday. The Valencia region, meanwhile, announced on Monday it will require so-called “Covid passports” to be necessary for access to more public spaces, as Andalusia did this weekend. Five more regions are due to propose at Wednesday’s meeting that masks be obligatory once more when outside, given the crowds expected on the streets during the Christmas season.

According to experts consulted by EL PAÍS, a kind of perfect storm is feeding this new spike in infections. On the one hand, there are scant social restrictions in the street – only masks when indoors and Covid passports for entry in certain spaces – as well as increased social interaction and people taking trips due to the recent national holidays (December 6 and 8). What’s more, the latest variant of the coronavirus to be identified, omicron, is suspected to be much more contagious than the currently dominant strain, delta.

According to the latest report from the Health Ministry, omicron has already gained ground over delta, and for the week of December 6 to 12, based on “preliminary data that are not representative on a national level,” the variant accounted for 47% of the sequenced samples (125 random samples from six of the country’s regions).

Three weeks ago we were already saying that Christmas would be bitter and January very bad. It’s sad to be proved right
Alberto Infante, emeritus professor of International Health

Alberto Infante, emeritus professor of International Health at Carlos III Health Institute’s National Health School, warns that difficult weeks are ahead. “Three weeks ago we were already saying that Christmas would be bitter and January very bad,” he says. “It’s sad to be proved right.”

The country’s primary healthcare systems are already struggling to cope and while hospitals are not at occupation levels seen at other times of 2021, pressure is rising. New admissions have grown 18% in the last week and on Monday there were 1,442 ICU patients – nearly 24% more than a week ago.

On average in Spain, more than 15% of ICU beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients, but this figure varies from region to region. In Catalonia, for example, the figure is around 30%. The director of the Catalan health service, Gemma Craywinckel, warned on Monday that the region’s hospitals are already delaying or canceling non-urgent surgeries given the spike in infections and the increased pressure due to Covid.

Also on the rise is the positivity of coronavirus testing, which stands at 13% – i.e. the percentage of diagnostic tests that come back positive. This is well above the limit of 5% that the health authorities consider as keeping transmission under control. What’s more, over the last week the R number of the virus – i.e. the number of people who will, on average, be infected by a positive case – rose to 1.12, which is also above the level of 1 considered by the experts to have the virus under control.

Ahead of the meeting between the government and regional leaders on Wednesday, only Catalonia has taken new measures. The region is currently the worst hit by the virus and with the most alarming figures in terms of pressure on the healthcare system. The curfew that the Catalan authorities have announced, from 1 to 6am, as well as a limit of 10 people for social meetings and a closure of nightlife venues from Christmas Eve onward, will have to be approved by the courts before being put into practice. The regional government has also announced that it wants to reduce capacity in hospitality venues to 50%, and to 70% for sporting and cultural activities.

US recommends against travel to Spain

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provides recommendations on how the pandemic should be managed, has advised the public against travel to Spain due to the recent spike in coronavirus cases. “Fully vaccinated travelers are less likely to get and spread Covid-19. However, international travel poses additional risks, and even fully vaccinated travelers might be at increased risk for getting and possibly spreading some Covid-19 variants,” the CDC warned. Spain is now in Level 4, which is the highest travel risk category.

Spain’s emeritus king tests negative after Rafa Nadal meeting

Spain’s former king Juan Carlos I has tested negative for the coronavirus following concerns he may have contracted the virus from Spanish tennis champion Rafa Nadal, reports Miguel González. The 83-year-old took the PCR test after meeting Nadal at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi. After Nadal’s game, the two sat down together at the same table, without wearing face masks. Following the meeting, the 35-year-old tennis player announced that he had tested positive, which prompted Juan Carlos to get tested. The former king “is feeling well,” according to the Royal Household, which added that the 83-year-old has received two doses of the Sinofarm Covid-19 vaccine and a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Juan Carlos has been living in Abu Dhabi since August 2020, after he left Spain amid a scandal over alleged financial irregularities.

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