Does the Spanish region of Aragón have the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Europe?

The latest data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows the northern Spanish region in red for its very high infection rate, together with neighbouring Navarre and Catalonia as well as the tiny country of Luxembourg. But just how high is it?

Does the Spanish region of Aragón have the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Europe?
Zaragoza, the capital of Aragón, accounts for 85 percent of infections in the region. Photo: ECDC/AFP

Aragón, a historical region in northeast Spain with a population of 1.3 million, has been struggling to contain numerous coronavirus outbreaks since the country ended its state of alarm on June 21st.

The latest report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (week 30) shows that Aragón’s 14-day infection rate is above 120 per 100,000 inhabitants, the same categorisation it has received in the past three weekly reports.

The only other regions in Western Europe that have the dark red classification are neighbouring Navarre and Catalonia, to the west and east of Aragón respectively, and the tiny nation of Luxembourg which borders Belgium, France and Germany.

These three autonomous communities have pushed up the cumulative 14-day infection rate in Spain to what is now practically the highest in western Europe – 68.6 Covid-19 infections per 100,000 – above Belgium’s rate of 47.9 per 100,000, Sweden’s 29 per 100,000 and Portugal’s 27.2.

Luxembourg’s infection rate is technically higher than Spain’s and all other European nations included in the ECDC’s map, but it is a country of just over 600,000 inhabitants (Spain’s population is 47 million) and almost 200 times smaller in size than the Iberian nation.

Even so, the evidence suggests that Aragón’s infection rate is higher still than Luxembourg's, although different Spanish news and government sources offer different rates.

Some sources also prefer to use the 7-day cumulative infection rate whereas other such as the ECDC opt for the 14-day one.

Either way, the figures for Aragón are staggering.

According to data published by Spanish public broadcaster RTVE on August 4th, the infection rate for the past 14 days in Aragón is 566.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, based on Spanish health ministry data from August 3rd.

This is higher than the infection rate for Aragón provided by the ECDC, which states that the infection rate in the region was 336 per 100,000 for the last two weeks, although this was only until July 29th.

Aragón’s infection rate therefore appears to be increasing and could be currently the highest in not just Western Europe but the whole continent.

ECDC data comes from governments’ health authorities, and therefore it depends on how each country divided the data when publishing its Covid-19 statistics.

In Spain’s case it’s regional information that’s provided whereas for other countries such as Romania in eastern Europe – where the infection rate is 81 per 100,000 – the data is for districts.

But even though there are small areas in Romania and Croatia where there are localised Covid-19 infection rates as high as 158/100,000 and 262/100,000 respectively, none come close to Aragón’s figures.

In Catalonia, the infection rate collected by ECDC until July 31st was 144 cases per 100,000 inhabitants whereas in Navarre it was 142. Both are among the top ten areas in Europe with the highest infection rates currently.

Anything above 120 is considered a very high-risk area by the ECDC, which explains why Aragón, Navarre and Catalonia are on the no-travel list for several European countries.

READ MORE: Which European countries have travel restrictions and warnings for Spain?

Aragón’s regional authorities are now at a crucial point in which they have to decide whether to introduce a full and strict regional lockdown in the autonomous community, or just in its capital Zaragoza where 85 percent of infections are located.

There have already been measures introduced such as the obligatory use of face masks at all times in public places, a return to Phase 2 of lockdown de-escalation in affected areas, limits on nightlife and other establishments as well as social gatherings and government calls for residents to stay at home and not leave the region.

None of the measures have worked in curbing the rising numbers (3,970 Covid infections diagnosed in the region over the past week) and there are now outbreaks at several care homes in Aragón, which is likely to raise the death rate.

In the absence of daily infection reports over the weekend and other unaccounted data by Spanish authorities, some epidemiologists consider cumulative rates more accurate than absolute numbers as they consolidate the data.

But even so, there is still a lack of homogenous data when it comes to reporting on infection rates in the country, a widespread complaint for many Spaniards since the start of the pandemic.

For example, the Spanish government website for its epidemiology centre offers provincial data rather than regional, with the infection rate for the past week in Aragón’s three provinces reported to be 105 per 100,000 for Teruel, 174 for Zaragoza and 143 for Huesca. 

This does cast some doubt over whether Aragón’s figures are completely accurate, but considering that the region’s epidemiological website has been lauded as transparent and thorough (even reporting at weekends), there is every reason to believe the situation in Aragón is as serious as it seems.  

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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.