IN PICTURES: What life is like for ambulance teams during coronavirus crisis in Spain

Jordi Rodriguez drives the ambulance across the city at top speed as his colleagues in the back start putting on their protective gear.

IN PICTURES: What life is like for ambulance teams during coronavirus crisis in Spain
Pictures by Pau Barrena

Although the pandemic has weakened its deadly grip on Spain, there has been no let-up in the “constant tension” faced by ambulance crews who know the coronavirus could be lurking anywhere.

Rodriguez and his team were at the ambulance station at Parc Tauli hospital in Sabadell, north of Barcelona, when a call came in that a 65-year-old woman had collapsed at home.

Although no virus cases had been reported at the address, they took no chances.

“You can't be sure, because these days anyone could be infected,” said Rodriguez, a stocky 47-year-old with an earring who works for the SEM, the emergency services in the northeastern Catalonia region.

“You have to protect yourself, not touch anything and always keep yourself clean, and that creates constant tension.”   

When the ambulance stops, doctor Pere Lanau and nurse Monica Naval jump out in yellow coats, putting on gloves, two masks and goggles before going in through a slightly open door where a woman can be heard sobbing.

“We're used to going straight in but now we have to take the time to protect ourselves,” says Rodriguez.

“It makes you feel bad because you know you have to get in there quickly because time is vital.”   

A wide corridor leads to the sitting room where a woman's lifeless body lies on the floor. The victim, who suffered from many pre-existing medical conditions, had felt ill for days but nobody called the doctor until she collapsed.

“With all this virus going around, we thought it best to wait,” stammers the daughter, whose little girl is playing with her dolls in a nearby room.    

“People are afraid, really afraid of hospitals and it hastens the end,” explains Naval, the 41-year-old nurse.

“Very few people come in but those that do are in serious or… very serious condition,” she says after returning to the ambulance station, carefully disposing of the protective gear that they took off and put into sealed bags after leaving the house.   

Non-disposable items such as goggles are disinfected along with the inside of the ambulance and all the medical supplies.

'Sometimes we break down' 

These medics have seen the gradual weakening of the outbreak in Spain — one of the worst-hit countries in terms of deaths, but where the daily toll has fallen from 950 at its height to under 200 earlier this week.

For the area's ambulance service, work is about 20 to 30 percent down on what it was at the height of the crisis, and now they might not see a single patient with COVID-19 during a 10-hour shift.

“It seemed to be improving over the last few days. At the moment (new) COVID cases are pretty exceptional,” explains Pere Lanau, now wearing shades instead of protective goggles, saying the virus cases they do see are patients who are being moved between hospitals.

Now 60, with greying hair and the voice of a radio announcer, the experienced doctor says he has never seen a situation so complicated.    

“Above all because of the nature of the sickness, so infectious, and the need for personal protection kits. These are things we don't normally wear and it has taken us time to get used to it,” he explains.

The first weeks were frenetic as panic spread through the population, with anyone showing the slightest symptom sure that they had caught the virus, says Antonio Carballo, who heads the SEM emergency services in the area.

“Within two or three days, we went from 6,000 calls a day to 25,000,” he says.

As the workload ramped up, so did stress levels. Although they were not short of personal protective equipment, the medics themselves were afraid of getting infected while dealing with complex emotional situations.   

“What is very difficult is leaving a family when you take the patient away. Many of them weep,” said Rodriguez.

“In some cases, you know that depending on how things pan out, it could be the last time they see the person. And that's hard,” says Lanau.   

Given the situation, the SEM has increased psychological help for emergency staff.

“The tension is constant and it ends up undermining our professionals,” says Carballo.   

“It's true that this is our job and we're ready for it and we like doing it, but at times we break down, like any human being.”

By AFP's Daniel Bosque

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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.