Spanish town tests residents for coronavirus against government advice

Despite government reticence, the Madrid dormitory town of Torrejon de Ardoz began mass testing residents for the coronavirus on Friday in a region that's been one of the country's worst hit by the pandemic.

Spanish town tests residents for coronavirus against government advice
Nurses prepare to take blood samples at a temporary testing point in Torrejon de Ardoz, on May 29, 2020. JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Thousands of residents of the town of 130,000 queued to have a blood sample taken and take advantage of a free test offered by the town hall in a bid to log who has “been in contact with the virus” and track its local spread, a statement by the municipality read.

“If you do the test today and you are positive we shall call you the next day so you can come and do a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test” to see in what contagion phase you are (and) meanwhile take adequate isolation measures,” project coordinator Pepa Soriano told AFPTV.

“Torrejon has been one of the communes most affected during the pandemic,” she explained.

People leave after having a blood test done at a temporary testing point in Torrejon de Ardoz, on May 29, 2020, where the city council has started to run around 130,000 free and voluntary tests for COVID-19.  JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

The move to take the tests comes with the government having faced bitter criticism from the opposition — and notably the far right — over its management of the crisis.

A death toll of more than 27,000 — around one-third in and around Madrid — is one of Europe's highest, but far-right party Vox has accused the government response of failing to protect the elderly and vulnerable while reining in civil liberties in what was one of the toughest lockdowns seen in Europe.

Spain's government view — shared by many epidemiologists — is that mass testing of entire towns is indiscriminate and not the best use of resources.

There has also been concern in the media of the danger of stoking “health populism” — whereby local authorities may feel compelled to outdo their neighbours in testing.

But in Torrejon, the mass testing opportunity seemed largely welcomed.

“It seems very good to me… We all ought to do it because we could have had the virus without it developing,” says Adriana Arboleda, a 35-year-old come to take the test with her daughter.

The town hall expects around 80 percent of locals will show up at around 28,000 per day.

Nurses take blood samples at a temporary testing point in Torrejon de Ardoz, on May 29, 2020, where the city council has started to run around 130,000 free and voluntary tests for COVID-19. JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

“Go it alone”

The government is not convinced about the initiative, however.

“You can't just go it alone on this matter,” the health ministry said on Thursday, estimating there should be a national diagnostic strategy as “it would be very counter-productive to race to see which municipality does the most or goes the quickest.”

Late last month the health ministry launched a national sero-epidemiological survey whose partial results showed only five percent of the population to be infected with new coronavirus, rising to 11.3 percent in the Madrid region.

Madrid's conservative regional government has accused the Socialist national government of taking “political” rather than health-based decisions in ensuring Madrid, along with similarly affected Barcelona, began exiting lockdown later than other regions.



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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.