How Spain’s Aragon region is grappling with a spike in coronavirus cases

In Spain's Aragon region, one of Europe's worst-affected areas by the pandemic, health centres are packed and a field hospital is being set up as authorities scramble to control a surge in infections.

How Spain's Aragon region is grappling with a spike in coronavirus cases
Covid-19 testing in Aragon. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP

The spike in Covid-19 cases started with outbreaks in households in an impoverished working-class neighbourhood of Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, said Jose Ramon Pano, an infectious disease specialist at the city's University Hospital Clinic.

“This is an environment that is conducive to transmission” of the disease, he added, citing cramped living conditions and the presence of a large number of immigrants who don't speak Spanish, as factors that favour infections.

These “initial sparks” were fanned at places that can aid the virus' “super-transmission”, such as family gatherings, bars and nightclubs, he went on.

Then the “fire” spread to workplaces and retirement homes in the city of around 675,000 people, putting its healthcare system “under pressure,” Pano said.

During the last seven days, the northeastern region, which is locked in on all sides by mountains, recorded Spain's highest infection rate – 270 cases per 100,000 people – as well as 32 deaths and 242 hospitalisations from the disease.

To help Aragon deal with the surge in cases, soldiers on Wednesday began assembling a 400-square-metre (4,300- square-foot) field hospital in the car park of a Zaragoza hospital.

locals in Zaragoza
Locals in Zaragoza. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP


More testing

Tourists are scarce at Zaragoza's famous domed basilica and the city's river aquarium, one of the world's largest, closed its doors again on July 27th to prevent infections after being open for a month and a half.

But the streets of Spain's fifth-largest city are far from empty. In the working-class neighbourhood of Delicias, which has the city's highest infection rate, elderly couples could be seen taking a stroll and
people sat in outdoor cafe terraces.

Some locals, however, such 74-year-old Dolores Valencia Gomez, said that they had been staying home out of fear for the virus. “I only stepped out to get lottery tickets,” she said.

While people waited outside shops, adhering to a limit on the number permitted inside at a time, queues formed at health centres.

 At the La Jota health centre, patients entered one by one into a room where a nurse, wearing two protective gowns, a face shield and mask, inserted a swab into their noses to test if they have the virus.

During the first week of August, Aragon – a region of around 1.3 million people – carried out at least 3,500-4,000 tests per day. When an infection is detected, a contact tracer identifies who may have been exposed by that person so they can also be tested.

Covid testing in Aragon
People wait for Covid-19 testing in Zaragoza. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP


Young are to blame

Many of the tests are carried out on asymptomatic people, who may test positive because they had the disease months ago and are no longer contagious, said Luis Miguel Garcia, head of the Aragon association of family and community medicine.

Aragon's high proportion of elderly should also be taken into account when tallying the region's Covid-19 death toll, he added. “If an 85-year-old patient of mine with prostate cancer dies, did he die of coronavirus or with coronavirus?” he asked.

Javier Lamban, head of Aragon's regional government, has blamed youths out having fun without respecting social distancing rules and the presence of many seasonal agricultural workers, many of them illegal migrants who live in crowded housing, for the spike in infections.

“There is a kind of perfect storm here,” he said earlier this month. Lamban has promised to deploy police, social workers and health care workers to check that people diagnosed with the virus and their close contacts
respect quarantine orders and stay home.

The visits will begin in the coming days, a regional government source said. Some people in the region have called for the government and police to take a harder line against people who do not respect social distancing rules.

During the first week of August alone, Zaragoza police said they broke up 75 gatherings of youths which broke the rules.

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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.