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FACE MASKS

Spain’s Asturias and Cantabria regions call for return of masks indoors

Authorities in the two northern regions are asking residents to keep their masks on in indoor public settings only days after the national government scrapped the face covering requirement after two years in place. 

Spain's Asturias and Cantabria regions call for return of masks indoors
Not all regional governments are convinced that the indoor mask rule should have been lifted yet. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

On Wednesday April 20th, Pedro Sánchez’s government officially lifted the requirement of wearing a mask in most indoor public spaces in Spain, a symbolic moment for the country as it was the last major Covid-19 restriction in force. 

After 700 days in place, the end of most mandatory mask wearing hasn’t convinced everyone, and opposition to the end of the measure is particularly high in Asturias and Cantabria, two neighbouring regions along Spain’s northern coast.

READ ALSO:  Your answers – Will you continue wearing a mask indoors in Spain?

Authorities in both territories want to return to compulsory mask wearing in indoor spaces and are encouraging under-60s to get tested for Covid-19.

In the Principality of Asturias, this cautious reasoning is explained by the fact that Covid-19 hospitalisations have been putting more pressure on the health system over the past weeks, and the fortnightly infection rate in over-60s is in the high-risk category (977 cases per 100,000).

According to the Asturian government, one in three people in the region is over 60 and during previous Covid waves the health system has been overburdened with patients in this age group.

Aside from their insistence on keeping masks on indoors (except for in schools), Asturian authorities are looking for ways to maintain quarantine for positive cases – even though the national Health Ministry has scrapped this for asymptomatic and mild cases – as well as requesting a second booster dose for people over 80 and those in care homes, which Madrid is likely to offer

Cantabrian president Miguel Ángel Revilla has also asked his citizens to wear a mask where “there are people” as “the virus is still there”. 

Cantabria’s fortnightly infection rate for people over 60 is also high at present (826 cases per 100,000 people) and local health authorities are working on implementing an early detection system to combat another possible coronavirus wave, while acknowledging that so far there has been no obvious spike in infections after the Easter holidays.

The two regional governments have been among the strictest in terms of Covid-19 restrictions throughout the pandemic and their current stance clashes with that of Pedro Sánchez’s administration, which is adamant on Spain entering a new stage of the pandemic where Covid-19 is treated like the flu and the focus is primarily on protecting the most vulnerable.

From a legal standpoint, Cantabria and Asturias’ calls for a return to full indoor mask wearing can only be recommendations for their populations, as mask legislation can solely be implemented on a national government level.

But their wariness for the end of mask wearing is shared by many health experts who see it more as a political decision than one based on scientific fact.

Just as Spain dropped its indoor mask-wearing rules on April 20th, Spanish health authorities warned that a new highly contagious but largely unstudied Covid variant has been detected in the country.

The national Health Ministry hasn’t ruled out toughening mask rules if the Covid situation were to worse in Spain, but for the near future it seems unlikely Madrid will backtrack on its latest decision. 

The ministry headed by Carolina Darias does recommend that those over 60, immunosuppressed people, pregnant women and people in their company continue with the “responsible use” of face masks indoors.

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COVID-19 ALERT

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.

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