Spain seeks to lead a change in Europe’s handling of Covid-19
As Spain’s latest record Covid wave shows signs of flattening out, the country’s government says it is preparing to lead Europe in engineering a major change in the handling of the virus.
Spain’s daily cases hit around 180,000 earlier this week, the highest figure since the start of the pandemic. The incidence rate also reached new highs, exceeding 3,000 cases per 100,000 population over 14 days. However, the Ministry of Health has signaled that the current wave, the sixth in Spain, may soon subside.
When it does, the left-wing coalition government of Pedro Sánchez wants to pioneer an approach to the coronavirus that stops treating it as a pandemic.
In a Spanish radio interview this week, the Prime Minister said it was time to start seeing Covid as “an endemic disease rather than a pandemic”. He added that his government has already been in contact with several other European administrations with a view to causing what in Spain is called the gripalización (or “flu”) of Covid – that is, treating it like a flu. ordinary.
“We need to move from emergency-type vigilance to higher quality vigilance compatible with other respiratory phenomena,” said Health Minister Carolina Darias. She added: “Spain wants to lead this debate.”
The main change would be how the virus is monitored, rather than how patients are treated. Under the current system in Spain and other developed countries, the total number of Covid cases is counted every day and testing and tracing is carried out accordingly.
The so-called sentinel system evoked would not seek to identify each case via tests. Instead, infection figures would be extrapolated from samples, much like opinion polls are done. Additionally, blanket restrictions would be lifted to be replaced by guidelines so that individuals are responsible for protecting themselves against the virus.
The federation of general practitioners semFYC agreed on the need for a new strategy.
“Let’s stop visiting and testing healthy people who have minor symptoms, stop tracing and testing their contacts, let’s abandon confinement and quarantine,” he said in an editorial on his website. “All these measures, which made sense in the past, have been overtaken by acquired immunity [due to infection and vaccination] and the arrival of Omicron.
After one of the world’s toughest lockdowns in spring 2020, Spain’s approach to restrictions has varied across its 17 regions. Madrid has adopted a reputedly hands-off and pro-economy approach, while other regions are currently implementing temporary measures.
A curfew is in place in Catalonia, for example, and a Covid passport is required to enter many public spaces in regions like Galicia, the Basque Country and Andalusia. The only national measure taken in response to the recent spike in Omicron over the Christmas period was the reintroduction of the mandatory use of face masks outdoors.
Sánchez’s government also insisted on vaccination as an effective tool. Ninety-one percent of Spaniards over the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated.
Several Spanish regions have already started testing the sentinel surveillance method in clinics and hospitals as part of a pilot project, further fueling discussions on a transition to a new nationwide flu-like strategy.
Manuel Franco, professor of public health at Alcalá de Henares University and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University, says debate in Spain over the change has been spurred by soaring cases triggered by the Omicron variant, which have made it increasingly difficult to monitor the Numbers.
One advantage of dealing with a virus like the flu, he explains, is that its relatively predictable behavior allows for the kind of proactive approach that Covid lacks.
“With the flu, we know months in advance what’s going to happen in the fall – it’s the same in Spain or Ireland or the UK or wherever,” he says. “We can check in advance which vaccine we need, how many doses and how many people will need the vaccine. We have become very savvy with this in many countries.
However, he is not convinced that the time has come to change tactics.
“The coronavirus is at this point nowhere close to the seasonal behavior of the flu,” he adds, insisting that the “flu” of Covid “is something for the future, it’s not not something we can apply now”.