Outdoor masking, more tracking and vaccination: How Spain is fighting the sixth coronavirus wave

The regional meeting on Wednesday failed to produce strict common guidelines, with authorities opting instead for more relaxed measures to curb the spike in cases

Mascarillas exteriores España
Vall d'Hebron hospital in Barcelona.CRISTÓBAL CASTRO
Jessica Mouzo

With “science and prevention,” Spain will tackle the latest wave of the coronavirus, which on Wednesday broke new records in terms of daily infections: more than 60,000. Those were the words of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who was speaking after a meeting with the country’s regional premiers to “evaluate” new restrictions to flatten the curve.

But no major measures are on the table after the meeting, with Sánchez announcing merely the return of obligatory mask use outdoors and a ramping up of the vaccination drive.

Some regional leaders, such as those from the Basque Country and Catalonia, have been calling for stricter measures. In fact, the Catalan government is seeking court approval to implement a new nighttime curfew and close the nightlife sector once more from Friday onward.

The prime minister, however, insisted that the scenario has changed. “We are not back in March of last year because the variant is different and because we have got so far with the vaccination,” he said, in reference to the new coronavirus strain, omicron. “The situation is different and, as such, we’re not going to apply the measures from back then,” he added, in reference to the outbreak of the pandemic and the home lockdown that followed.

Epidemiologists, meanwhile, are calling for stricter measures for the regions that are on the highest alert. José Martínez Olmos, a professor from the Andalusian Public Health School, says that “the logical thing would be to implement restrictions on capacity and opening time, limits on nightlife or a curfew when there are high alert levels. Not taking decisions is a massive gamble,” he adds.

For now, no region apart from Catalonia has announced major restrictions. Here is a summary of the action the central government has announced it will take to combat the sixth wave.

Masks outdoors

Sánchez has called a Cabinet meeting for today to address the issue of outdoor masking – until now, only necessary in indoor public spaces or outside when there are crowds and social distancing is not possible. The measure is due to come into force from tomorrow, but has been widely questioned by experts for months now given the low risk of infection when outside. For Toni Trilla, chief epidemiologist at the Clínic Hospital in Barcelona, it’s “more a cosmetic” measure that lacks epidemiological value to bring down the curve of infections. Martínez Olmos agrees: “We won’t solve the massive increase in cases just with this.”

What’s more, the prime minister announced a series of exceptions to the measure yesterday, which in practice mean the same rules will be in place as they are now. “We are going to include some exceptions, when, for example, one is practicing sports; when we are in natural spaces, such as the mountains or the beach; and obviously, when we are alone, with our family unit or with someone who is not from our family unit, but with a distance of 1.5 meters,” he explained.

This is essentially the same situation under which Spanish citizens can take off their masks right now when outdoors.

Armed forces support for vaccines

Sánchez also announced on Wednesday that 150 mobile teams from the armed forces would be made available to Spain’s regions to support the vaccination campaign, as would military hospitals such as the Gómez Ulla in Madrid and the Hospital General de Defensa in Zaragoza. Nearly 80% of the Spanish population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but given that protection wanes over time and that two doses are proving insufficient to stop the spread of the omicron variant, which is more contagious and resistant to the protection offered by the vaccines, the health authorities want to speed up the administration of booster shots.

The Spanish Epidemiology Society has warned that vaccination alone is “insufficient to control the virus and should be accompanied by non-pharmacological prevention measures.” But for the government, the booster shot is a key weapon in the fight against the sixth wave.

Right now in Spain, 44% of over-40s and 55% of those who were initially given the single-shot Janssen vaccine have been administered their booster shots, but there is room for improvement, say the experts.

“The third doses have gone slowly because there are fewer vaccination points and also citizens did not see the need to have a third shot,” explains Magda Campins, head of epidemiology at the Hospital Vall d’Hebron in Barcelona.

Spain’s regions are also starting to vaccinate the five- to 11-year-old group, which accounted for the highest infection rate this autumn. Eighteen percent of these youngsters have already got their first shots, but there is still a way to go and nursing staff are warning of an overload of work given the spike in infections and the vaccination campaign. “They are taking nurses to the limit, with more work and insufficient staffing levels,” the nursing union Satse complained this week.

Third dose after six months

Sánchez has committed to booster shots for all those who were given the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines six months after their second dose. In the case of those given Janssen or Oxford-AstraZeneca, the boosters will come three months later. For now, the Public Health Commission has only approved booster shots for the over-40s and those who were given Janssen.

The executive has set the following targets for the campaign: boosters for 80% of the 60-69 age group before the end of the year; 80% of the 50-59 age group by the week of January 24; 80% of the 40-49 age group by the first week of March. What’s more, 70% of the five to 11 group should have got their first dose by the week of February 7, and 70% should have got their second shot by the week of April 19.

Military help with contact tracing

The prime minister also announced that the Defense Ministry will continue to supply military personnel to help with contact tracing. As of December 21, more than 1,200 military contact tracers were assisting healthcare teams in Spain’s regions.

Given the spike in infections, healthcare teams cannot keep up with their workloads and monitoring positive cases and their contacts is getting more and more difficult. In Catalonia, for example, the regional government was planning to stop testing close contacts of cases with no symptoms, while Madrid has announced it will not confirm infections detected at home using antigen kits.

Contracts for retirees

In order to alleviate the workload due to a lack of staff – shortages that are being worsened due to healthcare workers becoming infected with the coronavirus – the central government is going to permit the hiring of early-retired or fully retired staff. “They will continue to enjoy their benefits and their rights as retired people,” the prime minister explained on Wednesday. He also announced that the hiring of professionals from abroad would be permitted.

More tests in pharmacies

The government will temporarily authorize the sale of professional antigen kits in pharmacies in order to get them into the hands of the general public. Given the shortage of these tests due to the sudden spike in infections, the General Council of Pharmacists says it views the measures “positively” given that the “most urgent thing at the moment is for there to be supply.”

More conferences

The prime minister also announced on Wednesday that meetings between the central administration and the regional premiers will be held every 10 days, in order to evaluate the situation of the pandemic over the coming weeks. The regions are in charge of their own healthcare systems, vaccination drives and coronavirus restrictions.

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