Spain reports 585 new fatalities after changing counting method

Spain's death toll moved towards 19,500 on Friday as the government revised its data collection methodology despite controversy over a system that counts only deaths among those who tested positive.

Spain reports 585 new fatalities after changing counting method
A coronavirus patient lies in bed at the Intensive Unit Care of the Povisa Hospital in Vigo,. Photo: AFP

The country reported 585 new fatalities in the past 24 hours, but it was difficult to compare with previous tolls after the government amended its counting mechanism. 

The total number of deaths in Spain now stands at 19,478, the third-highest in the world after the United States and Italy.

The government issued revised guidelines overnight for reporting deaths in order to standardise the data sent in from the country's 17 autonomous regions.   

The change was an apparent move to eliminate any deaths where the patient had not been tested for covid-19. Officials said they would revise previous fatality counts, and also apply the new rules to death tolls moving forward.

“This could mean that some of the figures may seem a little strange,” said Fernando Simón, the health ministry's emergencies coordinator, pointing to a “discrepancy” in the data supplied by one particular region.

There have been growing questions over the death toll in recent days with Madrid and Catalonia, the two worst-hit regions, this week insisting they had thousands more victims than the official count.   

On Wednesday, Catalonia said it would use new criteria by including figures provided by the region's funeral services who count virus victims and those who have died at old people's residences or at home with symptoms compatible with covid-19.

But not all of those victims would have necessarily been tested for the virus.

The overall number of hospitalizations (blue), admittance into ICU (yellow) deaths (red) and recoveries (green) are shown in the chart below, which reveals that the curve of the number of hospital admittances is flattening. Data: Ministry of Health.

'We may never know'

According to this new criteria, the region says it has suffered more than 7,500 deaths, while the ministry's count gives a figure which is some 50 percent lower — 3,752.

Without mentioning Catalonia, Simón on Friday said that the data submitted by one region “did not have the consistency that we would wish to have in a data set”.

Madrid has also challenged the methodology, with its regional government saying this week the number of dead — which by Friday stood at 7,007 — was likely to be more than 10,000.

“More people are dying of coronavirus than officially declared by the Spanish government,” the region's vice president Ignacio Aguado told Spain's RNE radio.

“In many cases, unfortunately, they have been unable to do a test… even though everything indicated that they had covid-19.”   

He added that the “number of dead is much higher” because only people who died in hospital and tested positive are being counted in the national tally.    

“We'll never know the real number (who have died) during this tragedy,” he added.

Friday's toll was the highest daily figure since Sunday when 619 people died in 24 hours.   

The data also revised down the number of people who had recovered from covid-19, giving an overall total of 72,963, from the previous estimate of nearly 75,000.

But the number of infection did correlate with earlier figures, showing an increase of 5,252 new cases, bringing the overall total to 188,068.


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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.