Is Spain’s coronavirus outbreak ‘close to peaking’?

The coronavirus death toll in Spain surged over 5,600 on Saturday after a record 832 people died in 24 hours, but officials said the epidemic appeared to be close to the peak.

Is Spain's coronavirus outbreak 'close to peaking'?
Photos: AFP

Spain has the world's second-highest death toll after Italy with 5,690 fatalities.

But although Spain's latest figures showed a daily increase of more than 8,000 cases, raising the overall number to 72,248, the rate of new infections appeared to be slowing, with officials saying the epidemic could be nearing its peak.

“The increase is slowing or stabilising little by little,” said Fernando Simón, the health ministry's emergencies coordinator, indicating the figures were “very very close” to peaking.

The surge in numbers has also brought the medical system to the brink of collapse, with the pressure on intensive care units a particular source of concern, he said.

“We still have a big problem with the saturation of our intensive care units,” Simón (pictured below to the right of Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez) said, indicating the worst crisis would probably take hold at the end of next week. 

“The patients who are getting infected today are going to need a bed… within seven to 10 days,” he said, indicating there would likely be a lag between reaching peak infections and the subsequent impact on intensive  care units — which would take over a week. 

“We really need a sharper drop (in infections).. . so that we don't reach this capacity crisis” in the intensive care units. 

Spain went into lockdown on March 14 but the numbers have continued to grow, with a worrying rise in cases among healthcare personnel.

Although there was no update on Friday's figure of 9,444 medical staff who had contracted the virus, Simon said it was a “larger number than that of most of the other affected countries,” with nearly nine percent of them requiring hospitalisation.

New temporary morgue in Madrid

Madrid remains the worst-hit region, with 2,757 deaths and 21,520 infections, leaving hospitals and mortuaries on the brink of collapse, with officials working to open a second temporary morgue in an unused public building near the airport to house the dead. 

An initial site was opened last week at an Olympic-sized skating rink at the Palacio de Hielo (Ice Palace) shopping centre. 

With undertakers also overwhelmed, the government has authorised the army's involvement in the collection and transport of bodies for the duration of the state of emergency. 

As the nation marked two weeks since the lockdown was put in place, Spain on Saturday received first a delivery of 1.2 million masks from China for health workers and those in the transport sector. 

The delivery includes 387,000 surgical masks for healthcare personnel, 75,000 masks for the security forces and more than 725,000 for those in the transport sector, from bus drivers to airport staff and those working for the postal service, the government said. 

Patricia Lacruz who heads the health ministry's pharmacology department said Spain had now signed contracts worth €628 million ($700 million) to buy close to 700 million masks.

“We are working around the clock… to increase the availability of these products within the national health system,” she said.

Also on Saturday, Spain's military chief of staff confirmed troops had carried out deep-clean operations in more than 100 hospital, 16 prisons and 1,083 old people's homes. 

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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.