Spain relied on strict lockdowns at the start of the pandemic – now it’s looking to move from crisis to control

Spain relied on strict lockdowns at the start of the pandemic – now it’s looking to move from crisis to control

When the coronavirus pandemic was first declared, Spaniards were ordered to stay at home for more than three months. For weeks they were not allowed to go out, even to exercise. Children have been banned from playgrounds and the economy has virtually come to a standstill.

But officials credited the draconian measures with preventing a complete collapse of the healthcare system. Lives have been saved, they said.

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Now, nearly two years later, Spain is preparing to adopt another COVID-19 playbook. With one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe and one of its economies most affected by the pandemic, the government is preparing the ground to treat the next outbreak of infections not as an emergency but as a disease who is here to stay. Similar measures are being considered in neighboring Portugal and Britain.

The idea is to shift from crisis mode to control mode, tackling the virus in much the same way countries treat flu or measles. This means accepting that infections will occur and providing additional care for those at risk and patients with complications.

This April 2020 image shows an empty street in Madrid during Spain’s tight COVID-19 lockdown. (Many Fernandez/Associated Press)

Spain’s centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez wants the European Union to consider similar changes now that the rise of the Omicron variant has shown the disease is becoming less deadly.

“What we are saying is that in the next few months and years, we are going to have to think, without hesitation and according to what science tells us, how to manage the pandemic with different parameters,” he said on Monday.

Sanchez said changes aren’t expected to happen until Omicron’s push is over, but officials need to start shaping the post-pandemic world now: “We’re doing our homework, anticipating the scenarios.”

“It’s not just about the number of cases”

The World Health Organization said it was too early to consider an immediate change. The organization has no clearly defined criteria for declaring COVID-19 an endemic disease, but its experts have previously said that will happen when the virus is more predictable and there are no outbreaks. durable.

“It’s a bit of a subjective judgment because it’s not just about the number of cases. It’s about the severity and the impact,” said Dr Michael Ryan, WHO emergency chief. .

Speaking at a World Economic Forum panel on Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease doctor, said COVID-19 cannot be considered endemic until it is did not reach “a level such that it does not disturb society”.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has advised countries to move to more routine management of COVID-19 after the acute phase of the pandemic ends. The agency said in a statement that more EU states, in addition to Spain, will want to adopt “a longer-term sustainable surveillance approach”.

WATCH | Omicron brings encouraging signs of the end of the pandemic with many caveats:

Omicron brings encouraging signs of the end of the pandemic with many warnings

There is some optimism that the Omicron wave could signal the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but experts also point out many caveats as it is unclear how long immunity lasts and if it will protect against future variants. 5:01

Just over 80% of the Spanish population has received two doses of the vaccine, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker, and authorities are focusing on boosting adult immunity with third doses.

Vaccine-acquired immunity, coupled with widespread infection, offers a chance to focus prevention efforts, testing and disease-tracking resources on moderate-to-high-risk groups, said Dr. Salvador Trenche, chief of the Spanish Society of Family and Community Medicine, which led the call for a new endemic response.

COVID-19 “should be treated like the rest of illnesses,” Trenche told The Associated Press, noting that “normalized attention” by healthcare professionals would help reduce delays in treatment of issues unrelated to the disease. coronavirus.

The public must also come to terms with the idea that some deaths from COVID-19 “will be inevitable,” Trenche said.

“We can’t do on the sixth wave what we did on the first. The model has to change if we want to get different results,” he said.

Spain’s health ministry said it was too early to share plans drawn up by its experts and advisers, but the agency confirmed that one proposal is to follow an existing “sentinel surveillance” model currently used in the country. EU to monitor influenza.

The strategy has been dubbed the “flu-ization” of COVID-19 by Spanish media, although officials say flu systems will need to be significantly adapted to the coronavirus.

For now, discussion of moving to an endemic approach is limited to wealthy countries that can afford to talk about the worst of the pandemic in the past. Their access to vaccines and robust public health systems is the envy of the developing world.

It’s also unclear how a rampant strategy would co-exist with the “zero-Covid” approach taken by China and other Asian countries, and how that would affect international travel.

Troubled test systems

Many countries overwhelmed by record numbers of Omicron cases are already forgoing mass testing and reducing quarantine times, especially for workers who show only cold symptoms. Since the beginning of the year, classes in Spanish schools only stop in the event of major epidemics, and not with the first case reported as before.

In Portugal, with one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in a New Year’s speech that the country had “entered an endemic phase”. But the debate over specific measures has petered out as the spread quickly accelerated to record levels – nearly 44,000 new cases in 24 hours reported on Tuesday.

However, hospital admissions and deaths in the vaccinated world are proportionally much lower than in previous surges.

In the UK, mask-wearing in public places and COVID-19 passports will be dropped on January 26, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday, saying the latest wave had “peaked nationally”.

WATCH | England relaxes COVID-19 rules after cases spike:

England eases COVID-19 rules after cases spike

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is relaxing public health rules, he says, as scientists there believe the Omicron wave has peaked. 1:43

The requirement for infected people to self-isolate for five full days remains in place, but Johnson said he would seek to eliminate it in the coming weeks if data on the virus continues to improve. Official statistics put the proportion of the British population at 95% who have developed antibodies against COVID-19, either through infection or vaccination.

“As COVID becomes rampant, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance, urging people with the virus to be careful and respect others,” Johnson said.

For some other European governments, the idea of ​​normalizing COVID-19 is at odds with their efforts to boost vaccination among reluctant groups.

Countries strive to increase vaccination rates

In Germany, where less than 73% of the population has received two doses and infection rates are hitting new highs almost daily, comparisons with Spain or any other country are dismissed.

“We still have too many unvaccinated people, especially among our older citizens,” Health Ministry spokesman Andreas Deffner said Monday.

Italy is extending its vaccination mandate to all citizens aged 50 or over and imposing fines on unvaccinated people who show up for work. Italians must also be fully vaccinated to access public transport, airplanes, gyms, hotels and trade fairs.

Austria’s conservative-led government said on Thursday it was introducing a national lottery to encourage resisters to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, hours before parliament is due to pass a bill introducing a national vaccination mandate. Around 72% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

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