When the COVID-19 pandemic was first declared, Spaniards were ordered to stay home for more than three months. For weeks they were not allowed to go outside, 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.
Now, nearly two years later, Spain is preparing to adopt another COVID-19 playbook. With one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe and its economies hardest hit by the pandemic, the government is laying the groundwork to treat the next spike in infections not as an emergency but as a disease that is here to stay. 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.
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Spain’s centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wants the European Union to consider similar changes now that the rise of the Omicron variant has shown that COVID-19 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.
Sánchez 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.”
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 a matter of severity and impact,” said Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s chief emergency officer.
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”.
Just over 80% of Spain’s population has received two doses of the vaccine, and authorities are focusing on boosting adult immunity with a third dose.
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 “must be treated like the rest of illnesses,” Trenche said, adding that “normalized attention” by medical professionals would help reduce delays in treating non-coronavirus issues.
The public must also come to terms with the idea that some deaths from COVID-19 “will be inevitable,” Tranche 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 model of “sentinel surveillance” currently used in the country. EU to monitor influenza.
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 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, or how it would affect international travel.
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”.
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 the coronavirus either by infection or by 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 respectful of 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.
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 of up to 1,500 euros on unvaccinated people who show up for work. Italians must also be fully vaccinated to access public transport, airplanes, gyms, hotels and trade fairs.
Associated Press writers Maria Cheng, Danica Kirka and Sylvia Hui in London, Raf Casert in Brussels, Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.