The beginning of the school year in Spain has coincided with the worst coronavirus figures of the second wave of the pandemic. According to data released Monday by the Spanish Health Ministry, the total number of Covid-19 cases has risen to 525,000, meaning that infections spiked again last week, with nearly 9,000 new daily cases.
The 14-day cumulative incidence of the virus, which is the parameter most commonly used to compare the epidemiological situation in each country, has risen at the same speed and is now at 230 cases per 100,000 people. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Spain has the highest incidence in Western Europe and almost double that of France, which is second on the list.
“We have a situation that is very similar to what we have been observing in previous weeks,” said Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts, at a government press conference on Monday.
Simón argued that the spike in cases is partly due to the fact that more infections are being tracked and detected. “PCR tests are being done where there is the greatest possibility of transmission,” he explained. The health official did, however, recognize that the positivity rate – the percentage of tests that come back positive – “is higher than we would like.” According to the Health Ministry, this rate has reached 11% in Spain.
“The trend is rising on a national level, but with significant differences between the regions,” said Simón. A few weeks ago, Aragón and Catalonia had among the worst coronavirus figures in the country, but now these regions have some of the best numbers in data points such as hospital admissions. But in other regions, such as Murcia, Andalusia, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, the incidence of the virus has continued to rise, even though these areas started from a better epidemiological situation.
Joan Ramon Villalbí, from the Spanish Association of Public Health and Health Administration (SESPAS), highlights other differences between Spain’s 17 regions. “If we compare the number of positive cases with the number of hospitalizations, we see that the number of admissions is especially low in the Basque Country, and in contrast, especially high in regions like Galicia, Castilla y León and Murcia. This appears to indicate that the former is managing to detect almost all cases, even asymptomatic ones, while in the others the chains of contagion are escaping them,” the expert explains.
The Madrid region continues to be the main concern, not only because it is reporting figures that are worse than the average in Spain, but also because these numbers continue to rise. According to Monday’s report, more than 20,000 new cases have been recorded in the last seven days, and in the last two weeks, the cumulative incidence of the virus has risen to 520 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. In the second wave of the pandemic, only Aragón has reported a similar incidence rate.
Simón said that confining the Madrid region continues to be under consideration as a way to curb transmission, and “celebrated” the fact that this option had been recognized by Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez Almeida.
On the issue of schools reopening, Simón said that it was a “challenge for all,” and admitted that some of the 28,000 education centers in the country may have to close due to coronavirus outbreaks.
The greatest risk, according to the health official, will be at the end of the school vacations (some regions have pushed back the start date this year, although others opened their schools on Monday) when children go from high to low-incidence areas and vice versa. According to Simón, if children move from an area where there are few cases to one where there are many, it is likely that “cases in schools will reflect the community transmission,” meaning the number of infections in and outside of the school will be similar.
But the opposite situation could be much more problematic. “If children are coming from high-incidence areas [to low-incidence areas], the likelihood of transmission in the classroom could be greater than in the surrounding area,” explained Simón. This, he said, could lead to a situation in which direct action has to be taken to stop outbreaks in the classrooms, including the closure of schools.
On the question of vaccination, Simón said that Spain will follow a system similar to other countries in the European Union when it comes to deciding who is vaccinated first. The health official said that “seniors with prior health issues,” and groups like health workers will be at the head of the list. Simón warned that when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, which will be in December “at the earliest,” there will only be enough doses for a “small part of the population.” He added that regional authorities and the Health Ministry will begin to discuss how to extend the vaccine “in the most homogeneous way possible” to the rest of the population.