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COVID-19

FOCUS: How Spain is racing to control Delta surge by vaccinating its young people

Vaccines have offered desperately-needed respite to Spain, but infection rates are on the rise again among young people who cannot get their hands on hard-to-come-by jabs.

FOCUS: How Spain is racing to control Delta surge by vaccinating its young people
Photo: LLUIS GENE / AFP

As the coronavirus swept across Europe last year, Spain was among the worst affected countries in the region: soaring death rates, hospitals overrun, and millions confined to their homes as a national lockdown took hold.

A year on, Covid deaths are down but the country is again struggling with another wave of the coronavirus, the fifth so far.

Healthcare workers are now racing to inoculate people in their 20s, even if those contracting coronavirus are not showing strong symptoms.

Failing to get cases under control could allow the pandemic to spin out of control among the general population — especially as new, highly-transmissible versions like the Delta variant take hold on the continent.

The latest data from Spain’s Health Ministry suggests that the Covid strain that originated in India is now the dominant variant in at least Catalonia, Madrid, the Valencia region and Navarre.

“They contribute to community spread if they are not stopped in time,” doctor Fernando Garcia, spokesman for Madrid’s public health association, told AFP.

To date, Spain’s vaccine campaign has largely focused on the elderly and the vulnerable — around 64 percent of people in Spain have received at least one vaccine dose.

But that rate drops to just 14.4 percent among those in their 20s.

And case rates are rising among them thanks to the easing of restrictions — masks are no longer required outdoors, for example — and the onset of the busy summer holiday season.

The country’s 14-day infection rate among people in their 20s climbed to 814 cases per 100,000 on Wednesday.

That’s more than triple the average for all ages, and a rise of nearly 100 from the previous day.

READ ALSO:

Spain’s fifth Covid wave: What are the new restrictions in each region in July?

‘Virus is spreading’ 

Happily, deaths have remained low as the vaccines have taken hold, with 17 fatalities reported Wednesday, and occupancy rates in intensive care units are not rising.

But the government says getting young people vaccinated is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Some regions where infections among the young are rising at the fastest rate, including Madrid and Catalonia, have now opened vaccines up to younger groups, eager to tamp down rising rates.

Photo: MARTIN BUREAU / AFP

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Spain is now vaccinating people at one of the fastest rates in Europe and is on track to have 70 percent of the population immunised against Covid-10 before the end of summer.

“The segment of the population which has not been able to get vaccinated is where the virus is spreading, that’s to say, among younger people,” he said Thursday.

He has vowed to make five million rapid tests available to regional governments to detect outbreaks, and said he would make military personnel available to help with contact tracing.

READ ALSO:

‘Act responsibly’ 

In some parts of the country, familiar restrictions are being rolled out again.

In Catalonia, nightclubs will close from Friday — just weeks after they were reopened — in a bid to curb an alarming rise in infections among young people.

Other regions are also limiting nightlife or have asked the central government to reinstate a nighttime curfew, a move Health Minister Carolina Daria said is “not on the table”.

She urged young people to limit their social interactions, warning they could spread the virus to older people who have been vaccinated but not yet developed immunity.

But she made it clear she did not want the youth to feel punished.

“It’s very important to ask them to act responsibly but not to hold them responsible,” she said.

“We know there is fatigue, but the virus is still there… We must protect the age groups where there is greater transmission.”

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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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