Spain records more than a million Covid infections in three weeks

Christmas in Spain isn’t over and the Health Ministry is yet to report new Covid cases over the New year weekend, but so far the festive period has left more than one million infections as the country struggles to contain the Omicron variant.

Passers-by, wearing a face mask as a protection against Covid-19, walk past Christmas lights in the streets of Madrid, on December 22, 2021.
People cross Madrid's Gran Vía on December 22nd as Spain recorded one of its highest number of daily Covid infections on record. Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

On December 8th, Spain’s regional health departments had reported a total of 5.28 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the country since the pandemic began. 

By December 29th, this total figure had risen by more than a million infections to a total of 6.29 million cases.

The figure snowballed in particular from December 22nd to 29th – 519,000 new infections – as Spain recorded on several occasions more than 100,000 cases in just a day. That means that roughly one in every 12 infections since the pandemic began almost two years ago were notified during that one week.

What’s more, Spain’s Health Ministry is yet to disclose how many new infections there have been over the New Year’s weekend as there’s no reporting over weekends and public holidays.

Although last-minute restrictions and cancellations of celebrations were introduced to curb the rapid spread of the Omicron strain, it’s highly likely the upward trend will continue when the Health Ministry reports the latest figures from the long weekend on Monday afternoon. 

More testing has meant more confirmed infections, and over the past seven days the results of 2.4 million Covid tests have been notified. 

Crucially, the Christmas period isn’t over yet as on January 6th Spain celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men or Three Kings for Epiphany, which is just as important or arguably more so than Christmas Eve and Day for Spaniards

It represents another round of gift-giving and family gatherings, so social interactions in the lead up and during this period will continue unabated for the following three days. 

Health experts are warning that this sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain will not reach its peak until the second week of January at the earliest, so Spain could well continue seeing its fortnightly infection rate rise until then. 

The incidence of the virus is currently higher than it’s ever been at 1,777 cases per 100,000 people, and four days have passed since the last update.

If it reached the 2,000-mark, it would mean one in fifty people in Spain are currently infected with Covid-19. 

With 90 percent of over-12s in the country fully vaccinated against Covid-19, hospitalisations, deaths and ICU cases continue to be lower than during previous waves.

But even these stats are now increasing at a faster rate as Spain’s 13,000 health centres struggle to deal with the avalanche of calls and hospital admissions, even if the virus is proving less deadly. 

In Catalonia, health authorities have decided positive cases can notify pharmacies of their infections rather than their health centres to try to lessen the workload.

If there is a positive to draw, the possibility of achieving herd immunity in Spain is looking increasingly likely according to virologists. 

With such a large proportion of the population now vaccinated or recovered (or both) as well as 13 million people with a Covid-19 booster shot, one would be forgiven for thinking such immunity was within reach, especially as Omicron has been described as the fastest spreading virus in history. 

“It is difficult to guarantee this,” Daniel Enrique Pleguezuelo, immunologist at Madrid’s 12 de Octubre hospital, told Spanish medical publication Redacción Médica.

“But with such a high rate of infection and fortunately mild symptoms in most cases, thanks to vaccination and the changes that this variant brings, we will most likely achieve sufficient group immunity to allow us to think of putting this difficult period behind us.”

“A fully vaccinated person that gets infected generates a powerful immune response, since the infection acts as a natural booster more powerful than any dose of vaccine without causing serious disease,” immunologist José Gómez Rial told the medical daily.

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.