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VALENCIA

How Spain’s Valencia region achieved one of Europe’s lowest infection rates 

In the space of less than two months, the Mediterranean region went from having a 14-day infection rate of 1,500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants all the way down to 31 per 100,000 on March 23rd. What changed?

How Spain's Valencia region achieved one of Europe's lowest infection rates 
People enjoy the sunny weather at a terrace in La Malvarrosa beach in Valencia. Photo:JOSE JORDAN/AFP

As things stand, La Comunidad Valenciana has the lowest infection rate of all of Spain’s 17 regions, with a drop of 53 percent in cases over the past fortnight, according to Spanish health ministry data. 

Their 14-day cumilative infection rate of 31 cases per 100,000 inhabitants is six times lower than that of Madrid’s (216 per 100,000) and four times smaller than the national average of 128 per 100,000. 

National newspaper ABC on Friday referred to the Valencian figures as “one of the lowest regional infection rates in the world”, an accolade which is certainly hard to verify, but if Spanish health ministry data is accurate, La Comunidad Valenciana’s infection rate could be on a par with some regions in Norway and Finland, which the latest ECDC map from March 18th showcases as the areas with the lowest reported infection rate in the EU/EEA (together with Iceland). 

It’s true that infection rates can fluctuate quickly, but Valencia has been on a downward trend since February. Since the ECDC’s map above was published last Thursday, the region’s infection rate has gone from 39 cases per 100,000 inhabitants to 31 per 100,000.

In fact, Valencian regional president Ximo Puig stated over the weekend that 94 percent of municipalities – 508 out the 542 that make up the region – had an incidence rate below 25 cases per 100,000 inhabitants for the previous fortnight, the lowest risk category before the “no cases reported” blue labelling all nations are hoping to achieve in the near future.

Of the three provinces that make up the region, Alicante has the lowest 14-day infection rate with 25 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Castellón with 32/100,000 and Valencia with 34/100,000. The government’s Covid statistics page shows that the 7-day infection rate is lower still: 6,10 and 10 per 100,000 respectively. 

How did the Valencia region achieve such a low infection rate?

The eastern region of five million inhabitants went from being the epicentre of Spain’s third wave of the coronavirus after Christmas to where it is now in large part because restrictions were kept in place for longer. As a result, the Valencian government passed a decree on January 19th which their regional head referred to as “the strictest rules in the country”.

There was the total closure of the hospitality industry for 40 days, and bars, restaurants and cafés are still having to abide by restrictions on capacity limits outside and inside, as well as having to close at 6pm. 

Crucially, Ximo Puig’s government prohibited all social gatherings throughout the region. The limit for meetings is now four people, outdoors and indoors. 

 

Valencia’s regional president Ximo Puig (centre) visits the City of Arts and Sciences with Spanish and German ministers. Photo: José Jordan/AFP

Added to this, the region’s sixteen main municipalities kept their borders closed until infection rates dropped, a measure which affected 2.3 million people. 

Valencia’s Generalitat government also opted for the strictest curfew hours available – 10pm to 6am – which are still in place even though restrictions have been eased since the start of March. 

The region also happens to have the lowest rate of PCR and antigen testing in Spain with 838 tests per 100,000 inhabitants; not because this matters less to citizens – the Generalitat has stated – but because there has been less need to get tested as residents have been sticking to the rules in place. 

Overall, the Valencia government’s approach has been one of caution, taking longer to lift restrictions than other regions had as soon as infection rates improved, as well as keeping many measures in place until at least after Easter (regional borders will remain closed until May 9th). 

This is of particular importance now that Germany’s government will allow its citizens to travel for their Easter holidays to the Valencia region and several other parts of Spain, in light of their improving epidemiological results.  

Tourists from other parts of Europe can also visit the region (not Britons yet due to travel restrictions both in Spain and the UK), so the region’s next big challenge will be to keep that infection rate low when accepting visitors from countries with generally higher infection rates than Valencia, and Spain for that matter. 

For residents of the sundrenched comunidad, who have withstood months of perimetral closures and still won’t be able to leave the region over Holy Week, it’s a case of hoping that all the hard work and positive results don’t get spoiled simply for the sake of tourism.

There’s also the fear that the fourth wave could be initiated by new Covid strains such as the British one (which already account for a third of new infections in the region), as well as delays to the vaccine rollout.

Valencian health workers have so far administered more than half a million doses of the coronavirus vaccine but only 172,794 people have received both doses, out of a population of five million.

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COVID-19

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.

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