Spain’s military help track and trace those exposed to the coronavirus

"Hi, this is the army: you're going to have to quarantine." This is the message a Spaniard might now hear over the phone from the country's military personnel freshly recruited to track and trace those exposed to the coronavirus in the European Union's worst-hit country.

Spain's military help track and trace those exposed to the coronavirus
A Spanish soldier works at a coronavirus patient tracking centre in Palma de Mallorca on September 24, 2020. JAIME REINA / AFP

At the headquarters of Spain's armed forces in central Madrid is a room with a sign on the door reading “Epidemiological surveillance department”.

Inside, a team of around a dozen people, headsets on, are working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, each making between 70 and 80 daily calls to identify those who've been in touch with someone who's tested positive for Covid-19.

“I'm a contact tracer for the region of Madrid, I got your number from someone who has tested positive. Firstly, where are you right now?” says one, using a phrase that will be repeated throughout the day. “You need to observe 10 days of quarantine.”

Spanish soldiers work with nurses at a coronavirus patient tracking centre in Palma de Mallorca on September 24, 2020. JAIME REINA / AFP

Tasked by the government with helping the worst-hit regions, more than 2,000 troops from different branches of the military are engaged with the painstaking work of tracking down the chain of contamination in a bid to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Many have blamed the lack of contact tracing as a key reason for the surge in numbers in Spain where some 760,000 people have been infected and nearly 32,000 have died.

Buying time

It is an arduous task which involves phoning up every single person who might be infected, and could be passing on the coronavirus.

Sometimes it may mean meeting to carry out a test but the main thing is to convince them to immediately isolate themselves from everyone around them.

The idea is to ease the pressure on the Madrid region's healthcare system, which is already struggling under the weight of new Covid-19 cases, explains commander Tomas Garcia, who is also a nurse, adding it is “to give the doctors more time”.

Military COVID-19 trackers work at the Cuartel General de la Armada Española (Spanish Navy headquarters) in Madrid on October 2, 2020.  PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

On a rainy morning in October, nine navy personnel are sitting at their desks behind a plexiglass panel, speaking softly into the phone while taking notes on a computer.

Drafted in just two weeks ago, they have been ringing round all the contacts provided by individuals who have tested positive, with the list of numbers provided by the regional health authorities.

The aim is to see who they have been in touch with to build a so-called “map of infections”. But guaranteeing the anonymity of the person who has tested positive while reaching out to all the people they have been in touch with is a fine balancing act.

'Not your fault'

In general, there are only “two or three contacts, although sometimes it's seven” and in some cases many more as was the case with one teacher, and another who worked for a fast-food company.

“No, no, no — he can't go to school because his sister has tested positive,” insists one in a low voice, the tone muted for most of the conversations.

“You must disinfect the bathroom really well if you share it with your husband,” says another.

A Spanish soldier works at a coronavirus patient tracking centre in Palma de Mallorca on September 24, 2020. JAIME REINA / AFP

Sometimes the situation requires an extra level of tact and sensitivity, with one gently saying: “It's not your fault. You mustn't see it like that, don't give it another thought.”

For Corporal Rafael Medel, telling someone they might have Covid-19 requires a degree of sensitivity. “It can be a shock,” he says.

Even worse are those who ignore the calls or refuse to cooperate.

“If it's someone who is a close relative who hangs up because that person is in hospital, or has died, it gets complicated,” he says.

Earlier this year, there was the well-publicised case of a funeral which turned into a viral time bomb, when all 20 people there got infected, he recalls, saying it required several people to track down all their contacts.

“There are also moments when you call someone and they just want to get everything off their chest, isolated older people who live alone,” says Medel.

After one such call, the tracer hung up remarking: “She reminded me of my grandmother.”

For those on the team, the main thing is “to listen” and to “be gentle” with people, he says.

“Each one has their own style, their own personal touch,” says Sergeant Ana Castillo, who runs the operation.

As to how much longer they will be doing the job, no-one knows. “As long as it takes,” the defence ministry said.



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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.