Madrid races to finish new pandemic hospital in time for second wave

Near Madrid airport, an army of cranes works round the clock to build a new pandemic hospital which is expected to open in November.

Madrid races to finish new pandemic hospital in time for second wave
Photos: AFP

But a second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak is already under way in Spain, straining the capital's public health care system.  

Around 400 builders have been working round the clock since July to build the 45,000-square-metre (484,000-square-foot) Isabel Zendal hospital, which will be able to care for over 1,000 patients during a health emergency.

Concrete mixers churn at full speed at the vast building site as welders set off sparks from the pillars which will form the backbone of building.    

Photo: AFP

“Two months ago there was nothing here,” said Alejo Mirando, the director general of health infrastructure in hardest-hit Madrid region.   

The regional government of Madrid is spending over 50 million euros ($60 million) to build the hospital, which will have bay windows which will allow doctors to monitor patients without becoming contaminated and large halls without individual rooms.   

The architecture was designed to “avoid transmission” of viruses and it was inspired by the design of a temporary field hospital set up at Madrid's sprawling Ifema exhibition centre between March and May, said Mirando.

The opening of the new hospital however will come too late to deal with a surge in infections in the Madrid region, which Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has called “worrying”.

'Verge of collapse'

Spain was one of the hardest-hit countries when the coronavirus struck Europe this year before a strict lockdown helped reduce the outbreak's spread.    

But infections have surged since the lockdown measures were fully removed at the end of June, especially in Madrid, with the rise in infections often linked to the return of nightlife and social gatherings.

The region, which is home to around 6.5 million people, accounts for 73 of the 191 Covid-19 deaths recorded in Spain in the last seven days, and for nearly a third of the country's total toll of 29,000 deaths.

The rapid pace of the rise in infections is “similar to that at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Silvia Duran, a spokeswoman for doctors' union Amyts.

Public health centres are so far managing to contain the second wave but hospitals are preparing for a rise in admissions, she added.   

Covid-19 patients already fill 16 percent of all hospital beds in Madrid, compared to just six percent nationwide.

“We are on the verge of collapse,” said Jose Molero of the Csit union, adding doctors are “exhausted” because they are seeing up to 60 patients per day.   

“The next stage will be when people go directly to the hospital because they can't be seen by their family doctor,” he added.

'High risk area'

Densely populated Madrid, Spain's transport hub, is “a high risk area”, the health ministry's emergencies director Fernando Simon said on Monday.   

While the Madrid region's deputy health chief, Antonio Zapatero, acknowledged that infections have risen during the past month and a half, he said the “situation is bearable at the moment”.

Governed by the conservative Popular Party, the region has taken up the leftist central government's offer to send soldiers to help track people who have been exposed to those infected with virus.

But some health experts feel the region is still not doing enough.   

A doctors group is planning to file a lawsuit against the regional government while hundreds of other doctors have signed an open letter demanding that the regional government “act to avoid a new collapse” in the health system.

Among the demands of health care workers is greater use of telemedicine.   

“It is us who are going to get sick,” said Duran of doctors' union Amyts.   

She recalled that in April healthcare workers accounted for around 20 percent of all Covid-19 cases in Spain, the highest proportion in the world, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

By AFP Marie Giffard 

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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.