BARCELONA, Spain — When the Trump administration said Sunday it was “beginning to see glimmers of progress” against the COVID-19 pandemic, one of those glimmers was in Spain, the country that has reported more coronavirus infections (140,000) than any other except the United States, and a fairly reliable leading indicator of what may happen in other countries in the coming weeks.
“As you can see from the hopeful signs in Italy and Spain — where we see, finally, new cases and deaths declining — it’s giving us hope of what our future could be,” Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the coronavirus task force, said.
But that hope may have been at least somewhat premature, and Americans looking forward to an end to the social distancing orders that have crippled the economy may want to temper their optimism.
In the country where morgues are so packed with corpses that some crematoria have been unable to keep up — in Barcelona, those seeking to cremate remains may have to wait two years — Minister of Health Salvador Illa assured the public five days ago that the rate of new infections had peaked, while other officials believe it may soon peak — or, alternatively, has merely hit a ridge and may still go higher.
Death rates in Spain appeared to drop over the previous four days, but they rose again Tuesday, a statistical aberration, explained one official, resulting from insufficient data released over the weekend. The numbers of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units appear to have dropped, but then again Spain’s two biggest cities, both with the highest numbers of cases — Madrid and Barcelona — calculate those numbers differently.
And sending a mixed message, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced an extension of his country’s state of alarm, which shut down public spaces and restricted nonessential travel, to April 26, while allowing factory workers and construction laborers to return to their jobs on April 13. The move to end the two-week-old shutdown was denounced by Quim Torra, the president of the regional government of Catalonia, as “reckless.”
While Sánchez added that “mass testing” of Spaniards is about to launch, particularly of those in essential jobs such as medical personnel, couriers and those working in grocery stores, he didn’t offer details. Other reports have said that the army would be in charge of rapid testing centers and that those workers testing positive but not showing symptoms would be isolated in hotels. Meanwhile, the efficacy of tests has been called into question with hundreds of thousands returned because they didn’t work, while others that test for antibodies are effective only a week or more after exposure. Health Minister Illa has stated that Spain is conducting 15,000 to 20,000 tests a day, but as reported by the New York Times Tuesday, the testing data appears “incomplete.”
“It seems that the Spanish authorities are themselves no longer clear about how many tests are being conducted in Spain,” Guadalupe Moreno of the data company Statista told the Times.
Factor in all these inconsistencies against a backdrop where countries aren’t using the same tests or following the same protocol in reporting increases and deaths, and the question of exactly what the COVID-19 situation is in Spain is unanswerable. But the restrictive lockdown announced on March 28 seems to have averted some of the worst outcomes. At the start of that countrywide quarantine, known cases appeared to be growing by more than 30 percent a day according to research compiled and analyzed by El Pais. Now the increase in the rate of new infections is less than 5 percent, the paper reports. What’s more, at least 43,000 of those known to have contracted COVID-19 in Spain have recovered.
As for masks, as in the U.S., Spain’s experts seem divided, with the Health Ministry’s lead physician recently saying they were unnecessary, while some government plans to partially lift the lockdown on April 13 call for workers to wear them. Prime Minister Sánchez for the first time appeared in both mask and gloves this weekend when touring a factory making medical supplies. But, as some in the Spanish press pointed out, by touching the inside of the mask, he appeared to be giving a lesson on how not to wear one.
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