Spain’s vaccinated care home residents rejoice on first trip out in a year

Recently vaccinated against coronavirus, a group of Spanish pensioners headed to a theatre in central Madrid on Wednesday on their first trip out in nearly a year.

Spain's vaccinated care home residents rejoice on first trip out in a year
Photos: AFP

Ahead of the outing, 98-year-old Milagro Fernandez painted her nails, curled her hair and pulled on a fur coat over her lace blouse.

As she enters the lobby of the nursing home where she lives, the staff break into applause: it's a huge moment for this tiny elderly lady who caught Covid last spring but recovered.

Heading out the door, she boards a minibus with three other residents: 87-year-old Antonio Alonso, Concha Martinez, 90, and Jose Tellez who is 92.

It's a very big day for them as they head off for the bustling heart of Madrid to a theatre on Gran Via, the city's busiest shopping street.

“Shall we have something to eat afterwards?” wonders Tellez, who like all of them is struggling to hide his excitement.

It's been an entire year since they last left the retirement home where they live and were able to walk the city's busy streets.

“I'm almost more excited than them!” grins Laura Egea who runs the home and would have loved to have gone with them.

When the virus first hit last spring, it ravaged this home of 180 residents, claiming “dozens” of lives, says Egea, her eyes welling up at the unspeakable memories.

In early December, a government report estimated that between 47 and 50 percent of deaths in the first wave of the pandemic occurred in elderly care homes.

Spain has so far counted more than 68,000 deaths and more than 1.3 million cases.

Time to have fun

Inside the minibus, they chatter on excitedly with one pointing out her former hair salon, another talking about restaurants while a third is directing the driver. “Turn left here, it's much better.”

In front of the EDP theatre on Gran Via, dozens of other buses have parked with their silver-haired passengers slowly getting out.

In the lobby, there is a sea of zimmer frames. In the auditorium many put their walking sticks under seats.

Today is a special day with the theatre inviting 150 vaccinated pensioners from seven Madrid care homes along with 50 carers, who have also been immunised, to see a one-man show by the actor Santi Rodriguez.

But the real show is not on the stage — it's the pensioners themselves, with a gaggle of reporters on hand to witness this first trip out for the newly-vaccinated.

For these elderly theatre-goers symbolise the return to normality that everyone hopes the vaccine will bring — even if they are still wearing masks and sitting at a distance from each other.

“I missed seeing so many people together, there are just so many of us,” says Conchita Martinez.

Nearby sits Milagro Fernandez in her red velvet seat, all smiles as the curtain goes up.

'Time to enjoy ourselves again'

Half an hour of jokes and laughter brighten up this chilly February morning nearly a year after the pandemic took hold in Spain.

When the show is over, everyone dashes to the loo with Antonio Alonso grumbling about the queue.

“It has been such a long time, but little-by-little we're going to start enjoying things again,” says Fernandez, her eyes twinkling.

Clotilde Frias, who runs events at the home and is the only staffer to go with them, says the relief at being able to go out is immense.

“The excitement has been the biggest thing. I think I was the most excited — along with Milagro!” she smiles.

“Truth is, we're very happy to have been able to go out. After a year and 10 days, it's about time!”

As well as receiving the vaccine, going out has given them “a healthy dose of vitality, enthusiasm and tremendous optimism,” she adds, saying this first trip out is only the beginning.

“We'll do it again and do whatever they want: go out, eat and have fun!”

So far, some 1.2 million people have been vaccinated in Spain since the start of the immunisation campaign which began just after Christmas with care home residents first in line along with their carers.

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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.