Sixth wave of Covid puts pressure on Spain’s hospitals and ICU wards

Almost all of Spain's regions have surpassed the recommended 5 percent threshold for Covid-19 patients in intensive care units.

Sixth wave of Covid puts pressure on Spain's hospitals and ICU wards
Intensive care units across the country are surpassing the 5 per cent threshold recommended by the health ministry for Covid-19 patients. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

Just two weeks until Christmas, the sixth wave of Covid in Spain isn’t slowing down, and the country is once again on “high risk” level for Covid-19, with an incidence rate of 305 cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks.

The spike in infections comes after the Puente de La Constitución bank holiday when people moved around the country and gathered for seasonal festivities.

The rise in cases is already putting pressure on intensive care units, many of which have surpassed the recommended threshold of 5 percent recommended by the health ministry, and some have even surpassed 20 percent.

From December 1st the average occupancy of intensive care units has gone from 8 percent to 11.3 percent, according to the latest data published on Thursday.

The worst numbers for intensive care units are in La Rioja (20.7 percent), Navarre (19.4 percent) the Basque Country (17.3 percent and Catalonia (20.2 percent), which have the most patients with severe cases of Covid-19.

READ ALSO: How Spain will vaccinate five to 11 year-olds against Covid

They are followed by Aragon (15.4 percent), Castilla y León (15 percent) the Valencian Community (13.9 percent) and the Community of Madrid (12.8 percent), while other autonomous communities are between 5 and 11 percent. 

Only Andalucia (4.9 percent) and Extremadura (3.6 percent,) are below the recommended level.

La Rioja has 11 Covid-19 patients in intensive care, while Navarra has 23, the Basque Country has 71 and Catalonia has 252 – which means the ICUs have returned to the situation in mid-September.

The regions with the highest incidence rate – and with the highest risk of transmission – are Navarre (incidence rate of 956.30 per 100,000 people), the Basque Country (757.94) and Aragon (591.47).

In the past couple of days, 84 deaths have been recorded, bringing the total number to 88.321. Of those, 12 are from December 8th, while 128 are from the past week.

Countries across Europe have been reintroducing restrictions due to the rise in cases across the continent, as well as the emergence of the new Omicron variant. But for now, the government isn’t planning any further restrictions, apart from the introduction of a Covid pass in most regions.

Spain’s Public Health Commission announced earlier this week that it would begin vaccinating five to 11 year-olds on December 15th.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez asked Spaniards on Wednesday to trust science, to be prudent and make sure they’re vaccinated and to wear masks when necessary.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

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Outbreak or seventh wave? Health experts divided as Covid cases rise in Spain

Spain’s decision to stop counting all infections has some epidemiologists arguing health authorities are turning a blind eye to rising cases. But is the country truly heading towards a seventh wave?

Outbreak or seventh wave? Health experts divided as Covid cases rise in Spain

Three weeks since the Easter holidays came to a close and the indoor face mask rule was lifted in Spain, the Covid infection rate among over-59s has increased considerably, for most health experts predictably. 

It’s double what it was on April 1st – going from 459 cases per 100,000 up to 813 per 100,000 – and although Covid hospitalisations have risen by 78 percent in a month, pressure on hospitals remains stable. 

Not that this can be considered a complete picture of the epidemiological situation in Spain as the health ministry decided last March it would stop requesting data from the regions for infections among under-60s. 

This is part of the Spanish government’s plan of managing Covid-19 in a similar way to other endemic diseases such as seasonal influenza. 

The focus in recent weeks has been lifting Covid restrictions, not counting and reporting all Covid infections as frequently and rigorously and keeping a close eye only on the elderly and vulnerable. In a nutshell, returning to life pre-coronavirus.

But for some epidemiologists, the 55,578 new infections and 234 Covid deaths in the past week are indicative of the fact that the virus is still raging strong and that the end of Covid rules may have come too soon.

“We’re not facing a silent wave of the pandemic.  We’re walking blindfolded into a new wave, we don’t want to see it and we don’t want to name it,” Daniel López-Acuña, former director of emergencies at the World Health Organisation, told public broadcaster RTVE.

“There is a considerable rise in the infection rate, and  a rise in the infection rate sustained over time is a new wave, whether you want to call it that or not , López-Acuña added, arguing that if the incidence in under-60s were also analysed, “we would see the same infection rate or greater”.

Epidemiologist Quique Bassat argues that although there is talk among health experts of a seventh wave, “what we don’t know is how long it will last and if this is the beginning of what will end up being a seventh wave, or if it’s really just a new outbreak.” 

For Bassat, who is regularly interviewed on La Sexta and Antena 3 news, a rise in cases after the Easter holidays and the removal of face masks indoors is “what was expected”, but that “doesn’t mean that the population should be scared” and it “isn’t necessary to change the current strategy” of the health ministry.

“Pressure on healthcare is what has to determine if we should take a step back in the de-escalation of Covid-19 measures,” Bassat concludes.

It’s clear that the Spanish government’s approach to this stage of the pandemic is subject to a variety of opinions among the scientific community.

Some health experts, such as immunologist Matilde Cañelles of Spain’s Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), consider it “irresponsible” to stop quarantine for positive cases and not count infections when there are still 30 people dying of Covid every day in Spain. 

Others take a more pragmatic approach and call for the fourth dose (second booster) of the Covid-19 booster vaccine to be offered to over-80s in the country as previously suggested, as the infection rate in this group is now over the 1,000 per 100,000 mark.

For epidemiologist Oriol Mitjà, Covid-19 adviser for the Catalan government, the coming weeks will shed more light on how big this coronavirus wave will be.

“Omicron is a variant with vaccine escape and with the potential to infect up to 60-70 percent of the population. 30 percent were infected at Christmas, 30 percent will avoid it and 30 percent can be infected now,” Mitjà tweeted.