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How the coronavirus has hit care homes in Spain

With the virus killing thousands at elderly care homes across Spain, some residences remained safe without a single case to report, raising questions about what set them apart.

How the coronavirus has hit care homes in Spain
Photos by Oscar del Pozo / AFP

As criminal prosecutors begin asking questions, the homes that were spared have won plaudits for best practices, including one where the carers never left, staying on site for nearly a month.

Investigations in 86 homes

At the heart of the scandal are 86 care homes that are under investigation following complaints from families or staff.

Forty are in the Madrid region where at least 1,054 people died after testing positive between March 8th and April 17th.   

But regional officials say the virus killed many more, most of whom were not tested, giving a figure of 5,668.

“We made mistakes,” admitted Alberto Reyero, head of social policy for the Madrid region, saying care homes were not “sufficiently prepared”, were unable to isolate residents and lacked protective gear and testing kits.   

In Alcorcon, just south of Madrid, at least 116 people died at four care homes.

Another 20 centres are under investigation in Catalonia, where regional officials say 2,621 people died after testing positive or showing symptoms of COVID-19.

Staff on sick leave

For Beatriz de Villamor Pimentel, who manages seven homes across Spain, the epidemic triggered “an enormous sense of helplessness and sadness”.   

“At the end of February, we bought masks and protective kits for all employees and reinforced staff numbers,” she told AFP, stressing that each home had a professional medical team.

But the virus took hold in three of the residences.   

At a home in Madrid with 55 residents, 10 people died, although only two were confirmed to have had COVID-19, Pimentel said.    

It was at this care centre that 12 of the 25 staff left because they were infected, or thought they had been, “and it was almost impossible to find replacements,” said Pimentel, 29.

When the residents themselves started getting sick, it was not possible to send many of them to emergency rooms as hospitals were overwhelmed, she said.    

“So we had to transform the homes into makeshift medical centres but without the resources to manage the crisis.”

Reactive care 

Other care homes were mercifully spared, such as Las Praderas in Pozuelo de Alarcon on the outskirts of Madrid which opened its doors to AFP-TV.   

Since the state of alarm was declared on March 14th, its 90 residents have all been strictly confined to their rooms, employees dressed in full protective gear, and the centre rigorously disinfected every morning.

Two doctors and two nurses are on staff and the centre's 35-year-old director Daniel Agha Rodriguez checks every resident's temperature daily.   

“I know everything immediately… and that gives us the ability to react quickly,” he said. Anyone feeling ill is isolated for two weeks — or sent to hospital if necessary.

Since March 8th, five residents have died but none had the virus, he said. When tested, only three of the 90 residents were found to be infected.

'Element of luck'

 

Other care homes have escaped by having staff stay on site, such as the Lerida nursing home in Catalonia which went into lockdown on March 13th.

“We could have been infectious, our clients are the most vulnerable group, and we weren't able to buy masks or sanitising gel,” says director Carol Mitjana, 35.

“We realised the only way to stop the virus was to stay inside.”   

So Mitjana and half of her staff spent four weeks on site, with the 22 of them looking after 89 residents.

Once they got hold of protective gear, staffing levels increased and things went back to normal, although strict safety protocols remain in place.    

“So far we've not had a single case of COVID-19 and we're very happy about that,” she said, while acknowledging that “an element of luck” was involved.    

“If only one of us had been infected beforehand, it could have been complicated,” she said.

By AFP's Laurence Boutreux 

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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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