Spain relied on strict closures at the beginning of the pandemic; now it seeks to move from crisis to control



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

But officials said draconian measures had prevented a total collapse of the health care system. Lives were saved, they argued.

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Now, almost two years later, Spain is preparing to adopt a different manual from COVID-19. With one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe and one of its economies hardest hit by the pandemic, the government is laying the groundwork to treat the next rise in infection not as an emergency, but as a disease that has arrived. to stay. Similar steps are being considered in neighboring Portugal and the United Kingdom.

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

This image from April 2020 shows an empty street in Madrid during the narrow confinement of the COVID-19 in Spain. (Many Fernandez / The Associated Press)

Spanish center-left prime minister Pedro Sanchez wants the European Union to consider similar changes now that the rise of the Omicron variant has shown that the disease is becoming less lethal.

“What we are saying is that in the coming months and years we will 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 the changes should not happen before the rise of Omicron is over, but officials must now begin to shape the post-pandemic world: “We are doing our homework, anticipating scenarios.”

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

The World Health Organization has said it is too early to consider any immediate change. The organization does not have clearly defined criteria for declaring COVID-19 an endemic disease, but its experts have previously said that it will happen when the virus is more predictable and there are no sustained outbreaks.

“It’s a somewhat 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’s chief emergency officer.

Speaking to a panel at the World Economic Forum on Monday, Dr Anthony Fauci, the US chief infectious disease doctor, said COVID-19 could not be considered endemic until it fell to “a level that does not disturb society”. “.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has advised countries to make the transition to more routine management of COVID-19 once the acute phase of the pandemic is over. The agency said in a statement that more EU states in addition to Spain will want to adopt “a more sustainable and long-term surveillance approach”.

TARGET | Omicron brings hopeful signs of the end of the pandemic with many warnings:

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

There is some optimism that the Omicron wave could signal the start of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but experts also point out many warnings because it is unclear how long immunity will last and whether it will protect against future variants. 5:01

Just over 80 percent of the Spanish population has received two doses of vaccine, according to Johns Hopkins coronavirus scanner, and authorities are focused on boosting the immunity of adults with third doses.

Immunity acquired by the vaccine, along with widespread infection, offers the opportunity to concentrate efforts to prevent, test, and monitor disease resources in moderate or high-risk groups, said Dr. Salvador Trenche, director of the Society. Spanish Family and Community Medicine. which has led to the call for a new endemic response.

COVID-19 “should be treated like other diseases,” Trenche told The Associated Press, noting that “standardized care” by health care professionals would help reduce delays in treating problems. not related to coronavirus.

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

“We can’t do in the sixth wave what we were doing in the first. We need to change the model if we want to achieve different results,” he said.

The Spanish Ministry of Health said it was too early to share plans drawn up by its experts and advisers, but the agency confirmed that a proposal is to follow an existing “sentinel surveillance” model currently used in the EU to control the flu.

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

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

It is also unclear how an endemic strategy would coexist with the “zero-Covid” approach taken by China and other Asian countries, and how this would affect international travel.

Troubleshooting systems

Many countries overwhelmed by the record number of Omicron cases are already giving up mass testing and reducing quarantine times, especially for workers who have only cold-like symptoms. From the beginning of the year, classes in Spanish schools stop only if major outbreaks occur, 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 declared in a New Year’s speech that the country had “entered an endemic phase”. But the debate over specific measures faded as the spread soon accelerated to record levels: nearly 44,000 new cases in 24 hours were reported on Tuesday.

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

In the United Kingdom, the use of masks in public places and COVID-19 passports will be withdrawn on January 26, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday, saying that the latest wave had “reached its peak in national scale “.

TARGET | England eases COVID-19 rules after peak cases:

England eases COVID-19 rules after peak cases

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is softening public health standards, he says, as scientists believe the Omicron wave has reached its peak. 1:43

The requirement for infected people to be isolated for a full five days remains in place, but Johnson said he will try to remove it in the coming weeks if virus data continues to improve. Official statistics put the proportion of the British population that has developed antibodies against COVID-19 at 95 per cent, either from infection or vaccination.

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

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

Countries are working to increase vaccination rates

In Germany, where less than 73 percent of the population has received two doses and infection rates are breaking new records almost daily, comparisons with Spain or any other country are rejected.

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

Italy extends its vaccination mandate to all citizens aged 50 and over and imposes fines on unvaccinated people who come to work. Italians must also be fully vaccinated to access public transport, planes, gyms, hotels and trade fairs.

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

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