Can Spain’s hospitals cope with coronavirus?

At the frontline of the battle against the coronavirus is Spain’s health service and nowhere is it under the cosh more than Madrid where more than half of all national cases have been recorded.

Can Spain’s hospitals cope with coronavirus?
Photo: AFP

In Madrid alone there are more than 100 coronavirus patients being treated in intensive care units in the capital’s hospitals, a figure that is rising daily.

The region has registered 1,024 cases of the new COVID-19 and seen 31 deaths while Spain as a whole had by Thursday morning seen 2,100 cases and 55 mortalities.

So can the hospitals cope? The Local rounds up the latest news on the issue:

Equipment shortages

Photo: AFP
The novel coronavirus outbreak is expected to push the Spanish healthcare system to its limits.

A particular worry is the pressure on intensive care units, which are essential for treating the sickest patients.

By the time coronavirus patients need to be admitted they are usually in a critical state and can remain that way for an average of 20 days, which means not only that units will become short of space and face staffing shortages but that there won’t be beds available for other non-coronavirus emergencies.


And Spain is already facing shortages of key equipment such as ventilators, which become “like gold” in the words of one Italian doctor at the coronavirus frontline in northern Italy.

 Madrid hospitals are preparing “intermediate care units” specifically designed to treat an influx of critical coronavirus patients for which they need extra ventilators to assist breathing.

But although extra machines have been ordered, there is a global stock shortage. Germany has already banned the export of key medical equipment and Italy has appealed to China to send over ventilators now that the number of covid-19 cases in the Asian country are on the wane.

There are numerous reports of a dearth of other equipment, including protective facemasks and uniforms at Spain’s outbreak hotspots.

“They’ve started rationing them because they noticed medical staff were changing them a lot more to avoid contagion,” revealed a health worker at a hospital in Madrid to El Confidential.

The price of protective face masks has soared from 50 cents to €7.

“Such equipment is under lock and key in the emergency room,” report workers at Ramón y Cajal hospital in 20Minutos.

“We are running out of protective equipment. We can run out of ICU beds,” admitted Dr. Arribas, head of infectious diseases at Madrid’s La Paz.

Overtired and understaffed

Health workers report being over worked even before understaffing became even worse with so many being quarantined themselves.

At the capital’s  Gregorio Marañón hospital alone, some 50 health workers were sent home to self isolate earlier this week amid risk of contagion. Ten of them have subsequently tested positive.

Similar situations are occuring at hospitals across Spain with health workers at high risk of contracting the virus and then spreading it around. 

Madrid health authorities have extended temporary work contracts of health professionals who are hired to work over winter and cover the flu season. While most of those contracts would end by the middle of March with the arrival of spring, they have been extended to cope with the coronavirus crisis.

Last week the Community of Madrid signed off 1,658 contracts, 707 of those are extensions of the winter plan and another 951 specific for the coronavirus crisis.

“What worries me as a medical professional is that the measures that have to be taken are not being taken in time to avoid many people becoming infected in a very short time,” explained  Ángela Hernández of Madrid's Doctors union. “Because if that happens the capacities that we have in the health system will be exceeded.”

Telephone lines

Even the dedicated coronavirus emergency health lines have been overwhelmed with people reporting being stuck on hold for hours.

The national emergency 112 number became so overwhelmed with queries about the coronavirus that other health emergency calls couldn't get through so dedicated regional services phone services have been in place since the beginning of the week. 


The advice for those who think they may have the coronavirus is to stay at home, DO NOT go to the hospital or healh clinic and contact your regional health coronavirus service on one of the numbers above where you will be given instructions on how to proceed. 

Army on standby

Spain's ministry of defence has drawn up plans for the army to step in and help in Spain's hardest hit hospitals when the need arises. 

Specialist units are posied to create field hospitals attached to hospitals in the hotspots were the outbreak is at its worst, currently in Madrid, the Basque Country and La Rioja. 

In the same way as military units carry out humanitarian aid during international disasters, plans are in place for emergency measures to be introduced in Spain. 

The army has also carried out an inventory of all its medical supplies so that they can be made available if there is a shortage in national health service stocks.

Warning from a Spanish doctor in Italy

A Spanish doctor who has  been working in a hospital in Milan has gone public to urge his home country to take the coronavirus seriously and not wait to take proper action. 

“What happened in Italy 18 days ago is now happening in Spain,” the doctor who is only identified by his first name Luis, said in a video.

“They told us that it was like the flu and although some people were affected a little more nothing happened … but although it is true and 80 percent experience it like a flu and nothing much happens. The problem is that it is very contagious. all of a sudden and the hospitals are saturated because there are many people admitted, and not with a runny nose, admitted into the ICU “
“The Italian National Health System is one of the strongest and they cannot cope, they are at the point of collapse, the nurses and doctors are not coping, the ICU is broken, there are no more ventilators. If I went out now and got on my motorcycle and crashed and they have to take me to the hospital, there is nobody to take care of me, the system has collapsed,” he warned.

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.