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COVID-19 STATS

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
Some health experts are against the Spanish government's approach of not counting all Covid infections in the country and removing quarantine for positive cases.(Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

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.

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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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