Spain now has the highest Covid infection rate in Europe 

With a fortnightly infection rate of 2,433 cases per 100,000 people, Spain now has the highest incidence of the virus of all European nations. 

Spain now has the highest Covid infection rate in Europe 
People walk on the promenade at Barceloneta neighborhood in Barcelona on December 31, 2021. Not everyone is wearing masks outdoors even though the Spanish government reintroduced this requirement ahead of Christmas. Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

The Omicron variant is sweeping across Europe at top speed, and although nations such as Italy and France have recorded daily infection figures higher than Spain’s, it’s the Iberian nation that has had the highest prevalence of the virus over the past two weeks. 

Spain’s fortnightly infection rate of 2,433 cases per 100,000 people is higher than the United Kingdom’s (2,326), France’s (1,693), Switzerland’s (1,550) and Portugal’s (1,208).

That means that one in 41 people in Spain currently have Covid-19 or have had it over the past 14 days. 

The 117,775 new infections confirmed on Tuesday pushed Spain’s infection rate above the UK’s.

Almost one in every three Covid tests carried out in Spain – 28.7 percent – are also currently giving positive results, with more than 100,000 confirmed new cases a day for the past week.

The infection rate has continued to be used as an indicator of the prevalence of the virus in Spain even though back in September Spain’s Health Ministry announced it intended to stop using it to determine if the country’s epidemiological situation was improving or worsening.

In late November, they instead raised the threshold of what constitutes low and high risk for Covid infections, which during this sixth wave of Spain’s pandemic hasn’t mattered as all regions and age groups are now in the extreme risk category. 

So should Spain’s sky-high infection rate worry authorities and the general population if the general consensus is that the Omicron variant isn’t resulting in the same degree of hospitalisations and deaths as during previous coronavirus strains and waves?

It depends who you ask. Some health experts believe that the wave of infections, coupled with the high rate of vaccination in the country, mean that the country is nearing herd immunity.

“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.”

On the other hand, Spain’s hospitals are under increasing pressure and have now admitted more Covid-19 patients than during the previous two waves, causing delays for other hospital patients and surgery cancellations.  

There are currently around 13,000 Covid hospitalisations of which 2,000 are ICU admissions.

The high prevalence of the virus is also resulting in staff shortages as people who test positive are forced to quarantine, now for seven days rather than 10 after the government amended the self-isolation period last week. 

So it appears to be a double-edged sword, where we’re perhaps fast-forwarding through this latest stage of the pandemic and Spain is taking a big leap toward immunity, but the virus is also temporarily putting huge pressure on the healthcare system and the economy.  

Health experts expect the peak of this sixth wave to be reached in mid-January and some haven’t ruled out that increased social interaction during Easter will bring a seventh wave, but will more people vaccinated and recovered by then mean this doesn’t happen once again?

“We cannot talk about group immunity yet, not in the conventional sense,” leading Spanish immunologist Margarita del Val told Business Insider about the fact that even though 90 percent of Spain’s over 12s are fully vaccinated, the inoculations available don’t prevent transmission.

“Herd immunity is when vaccinated people are like shields, they are not contagious and they do not infect others.”

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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.