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COVID-19

Why Spain’s virus death count ‘may be thousands short’

Spain's coronavirus death toll soared past 19,000 on Thursday with another 551 deaths, but questions over the counting method have raised some regional concerns the real figure is much higher.

Why Spain's virus death count 'may be thousands short'
Crucifixes lie on the coffins of COVID-19 coronavirus victims at San Jose mortuary in Burgos. Photo: AFP

After nearly five weeks of confinement, the rise in deaths and infections has slowed over the past fortnight, with the overnight fatalities taking the toll to 19,130.

But regional authorities in Madrid and Catalonia said they each had thousands more victims than the official count.

“The real number of deaths is difficult to know,” said Fernando Simon, the health ministry's emergencies coordinator.

The daily figure was compiled from information provided by regional authorities concerning deaths among patients who “had tested positive for coronavirus”, he said.

Between them, Madrid and Catalonia account for 56 percent of the national toll, but some officials say the numbers are flawed for not including all those who have died outside of hospital.

Madrid has counted 6,877 deaths but on Wednesday a top official said the true figure was likely to be more than 10,000.

In Catalonia, where 3,855 people have died, the real number could be higher than 7,000 — prompting the regional government to announce changes to its counting method.

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A coronavirus patient lies in bed at the Intensive Unit Care of the Povisa Hospital in Vigo,. Photo: AFP

 

Deaths outside of hospital

“Until now, the official figures were supplied by Catalan hospitals counting people who died there,” it said in a statement late on Wednesday.   

“But as of today.. figures on deaths at (old people's) residences and homes throughout Catalonia will also be collected following an order to funeral services to provide this information,” it said, giving a new figure of 7,097.

The funeral homes based their numbers on a count of those who died with COVID-19 and others who died while showing symptoms compatible with infection without having being tested, the Catalan government said.

But Simon said it was important to verify whether or not those victims “had tested positive or not”.

Among the latest wave of victims was best-selling Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda, who died at a hospital in the northern city of Oviedo, his publishing house said.

Spain also recorded 5,183 new cases of COVID-19, taking the overall figure to 182,816 — officially second highest in the world behind the United States.   

Spanish officials say the virus has steadied since a daily toll of 950 was recorded on April 2 but they have insisted on maintaining the March 14th lockdown that is likely to be extended into mid-May.

One of the tightest lockdowns in Europe, the restrictions allow just essential workers out, otherwise the rest of the population can only leave home to buy food and medicine, to attend a medical emergency or to briefly walk the dog.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What we know about Spain’s lockdown exit strategy

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COVID-19

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.

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