The sixth coronavirus wave in Spain is slowing. This can be clearly seen in the national data: the number of daily cases is stabilizing, and more importantly still, so too are hospital admissions for Covid-19, which is a more reliable sign of the change in trend.
There are regions, such as Navarre and the Basque Country, where the number of detected infections is clearly falling.
And there is another sign that contagions are falling beyond the official case count: the presence of the virus in wastewater. In Madrid, the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 has dropped 25% in the last two weeks. It is an important sign because it does not depend on how many tests are carried out and how many positives are reported, which is a changing protocol.
Looking at the figures, it could be said that cases are falling and that they will continue to do so. But there is another data point that raises concern.
Coronavirus cases are rising very quickly among children. This can be seen at a national level. Since Kings Day on January 6, the number of infections detected among children and teenagers has started to rise again. For children under the age of nine, the seven-day incidence rate has gone from 1,300 cases per 100,000 inhabitants to 1,900 in just a week.
This trend can be seen in data from Catalonia: cases among children shot up in the second week of January.
The problem is how to interpret these spikes. One possibility is that they simply reflect a rise in contagions following the national holiday and return to school. But it could also be that what has risen is not the number of cases, but rather the number of cases being detected.
Has there been a change in protocols that has improved the detection of infections among children since Christmas? Or has the return to schools, which have guidelines on reporting cases, led to more cases being detected? Researcher Clara Prats, from Catalonia’s Polytechnic University, provided data that would suggest this has been the case: the positivity rate among children – i.e. the percentage of Covid-19 tests that come back positive out of the total – has fallen from 50% in December to 25%. In other words, more cases are being detected, in part because more tests are being carried out.
“We are in the most difficult moment to say anything,” said Saúl Ares, a systems biologist and investigator at Spain’s National Research Council (CSIC), after studying the epidemiological curve. To solve the puzzle, we will have to wait to see how key data points evolve this week: the incidence rate among children, the incidence rate among their parents and the rate of Covid-19 hospital admissions.
How many people have had the virus? In two months, 3.5 million coronavirus cases have been detected in Spain, but the real number could be three or five times higher, i.e. between 10 and 15 million. The United Kingdom carries out random surveys and these suggest that there are three contagions for every case detected. Meanwhile in the United States, some epidemiologists argue that there are four or five infections for every one reported. Spain has a higher positivity rate than both those nations, meaning detection in the country could be even worse.
Between 20% and 30% of Spaniards may have had Covid-19 between November and now. And this figure could double as the sixth wave descends.
These are tremendous figures. As biologist Trevor Bedford explained on Twitter, speaking in reference to the US: “Having around 40% of the population infected by a single pathogen in the span of eight weeks is remarkable and I can’t think of an obvious modern precedent.”
Covid-19 vaccines and the fact that the highly transmissible omicron variant is less severe than previous strains has helped buffer the impact of the virus. But it is important to look closely at the number of hospitalizations and fatalities if we are to consider a future scenario in which Covid-19 is pandemic, predictable and cyclical.
Since November, there have been 68,000 hospital admissions for Covid-19, while 3,500 people have died after testing positive for the virus. Fatalities, however, are typically notified with delays. And since July? Although many people were vaccinated by July, since then, there have been 150,000 hospitalizations, 11,000 official deaths and thousands more excess deaths, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE).
It’s too soon to compare the virus to the flu, given that this wave has yet to end and that many of the cases detected were due to delta, not omicron. That said, it is useful to have a point of reference. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu kills in the US around 32,000 people a year, which for the population in Spain, would be the equivalent to around 4,000 or 5,000 victims. According to the European equivalent, more than 43,000 people die every year from the flu, which would also equal between 4,000 and 5,000 deaths in Spain.
For now Covid is too unpredictable to treat as a flu. As epidemiologist Adam Kucharski explained on Twitter: “A key feature of endemicity is an element of predictability – we understand what’s driving the long term dynamics, and can have some confidence about the range of likely annual outcomes.” This implies certain understanding and control as we have with the flu. But it is not clear if we are at this point with Covid-19.
How many hospital admissions and deaths from Covid-19 could there be in 2023 and 2024? How likely is it that a worse variant of the virus will emerge? These uncertainties do not mean the future is bleak, nor stop us from moving towards a more normal life, but they are reasons to remain vigilant.
Man jailed for WhatsApp threats to kill Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez
A man has been sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for threatening to kill Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
Manuel Murillo Sanchez was found guilty by Spain’s National Court of preparing to commit assassination and illegal weapons offences.
The 65-year-old former security guard from Tarrasa was arrested in 2018 after making deaths threats in a WhatsApp group.
The court heard how Murillo Sanchez had offered to act as a “sniper” and “hunt down” the Spanish PM “like a deer”.
The suspect’s comments came after the Spanish government had ordered for the remains of former dictator Francisco Franco to be exhumed.
The court rejected his defence that he had been intoxicated when sending the WhatsApp messages and sentenced him to two years and six months in prison for attempted murder.
He was also given a five-year sentence for possessing illegal weapons and banned from owning any firearms for eight years. The verdict is subject to appeal.
The remains of Franco were removed to a cemetery on the outskirts of Madrid in October 2019, prompting anger from far-right groups in Spain.
In a WhatsApp group, Murillo Sanchez had allegedly told fellow users that he was a “sniper with a precise shot” who could target Prime Minister Sanchez.
“We cannot allow them to humiliate Generalissimo Francisco Franco … If necessary, I will go armed and sit on Franco’s tomb, and if they come close, I will shoot”, he reportedly wrote.
The court said the man’s “determination” and the number of weapons seized from him shows “a high level of danger” even if he had not made any specific plans to kill the Spanish PM.
The suspect had repeatedly expressed “his intention to finish off the president of the government” to “bring about a change in the Spanish political situation”, a court statement read.
Barcelona seeks to ban smoking on all beaches, after positive pilot scheme
Barcelona City Council is seeking to ban smoking on all of the city’s 10 beaches from this July, following a successful pilot scheme that was carried out on four beaches last summer.
‘The measure aims to facilitate healthier places to live together, with less waste and respect for the environment,’ the council said.
It said that there was a ‘good reception’ to the pilot test of smokeless beaches carried out last year, and which was assessed positively by the public with a score of 8.2 points out of 10. It also resulted in ‘a significant reduction of highly polluting cigarette butts abandoned in the sand’, the council added, resulting in the authorities pushing for an extension of the ban on all 10 beaches of Barcelona’s coastline for this summer.
The council said on Friday that it would be launching a campaign this month to inform residents of the new measure, as well as spreading awareness of its benefits. When the restriction comes into effect in July, it will be monitored by the Barcelona Public Health Agency (ASPB).
Last summer smoking was prohibited on four of the ten beaches in Barcelona (Sant Miquel, Somorrostro, Nova Icària and Nova Mar Bella) from 29 May until 12 September. The regulations last year did not allow Barcelona City Council to actually apply sanctions, but bathers could be told to stop smoking by police officers, and if they then refused to do so, they could have faced fines for disobedience.
According to reports, only 2.6% of beach-goers defied the ban at the four beaches last summer, whilst 19% of those at the city’s other six beaches smoked.
The campaign last year highlighted that 13.8% of deaths annually in Barcelona are attributed to tobacco consumption – some 2,200 people. The campaign also focused on the danger of second-hand smoke, considered particularly harmful for children. A study last year revealed that more than 135,000 cases of respiratory diseases and over 3,000 hospitalisations in children aged under 12 in Spain are attributed to passive smoking.
According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Smoking, approximately five billion cigarette butts end up in the sea each year. Discarded cigarettes contain substances such as cadmium, iron, arsenic, nickel, copper, zinc, or manganese – some of which are toxic to both human and marine life.
Body of US software mogul John McAfee still in Barcelona morgue, seven months after his death
The body of American anti-virus developer John McAfee remains in a morgue in the Barcelona City of Justice complex, in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia, seven months after his death. It is currently located in the Legal Medicine Institute (Imelec), a grey building with honeycomb windows, while a judge has been preparing a report on his death.
That report, released this week, has determined that the software mogul died by suicide in his prison cell in Barcelona province on June 23, 2021 as he awaited extradition to the United States on charges of failing to file US tax returns from 2014 to 2018.
The 75-year-old’s family had raised questions about the circumstances of his death, even though an autopsy concluded that McAfee hung himself inside his cell at Brians 2 penitentiary in Sant Esteve Sesrovires. Prison workers found a suicide note in the pocket of his pants.
The months-long investigation is not quite over yet, as lawyers for McAfee’s family have appealed the Spanish judge’s decision to provisionally close the case. The provincial court of Barcelona must now decide whether to confirm the judge’s decision or order him to keep the investigation open. The family has argued that the autopsy was incomplete and lacked the “basic elements” to draw definitive conclusions about the cause of death, according to defense sources.
The building in Martorell (Barcelona) that houses the court that’s been investigating the case has so many structural deficiencies that in 2019, Spain’s legal watchdog, the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), ordered two courtrooms closed because of safety hazards. The legal staff in this building is also dealing with a severe backlog of work, which partially explains the delay in concluding the McAfee investigation.
The cybersecurity entrepreneur’s family was very critical of the process from the beginning. His ex-wife, Janice McAfee, traveled to Barcelona and met with three prison officials at Brians 2, but she remained unconvinced by their explanations and questioned the suicide hypothesis. “The last thing he told me was ‘I love you and I’ll call you this evening. Those are not the words of someone who is suicidal’,” she said at the time.
But medical experts who examined the body always believed it was a clear case of suicide. McAfee was found hanging from his cell, where he had asked to spend time. He was in pre-trial detention after being charged with tax evasion by the United States. He had been in prison for more than eight months while Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, considered the extradition request for failing to file tax returns between 2014 and 2018. On Wednesday morning, McAfee’s lawyers told him that the court had decided to approve his extradition to the US and in the afternoon he killed himself, according to the investigation.
McAfee was the creator of one of the most popular antivirus software programs on the market and was considered a genius in the tech world. His life, however, was plagued by controversy. In 2012, McAfee was named a person of interest by authorities in Belize investigating the murder of his neighbor, but he never faced trial because he fled before he could be questioned. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, McAfee was in Spain’s Catalonia region, where he spent most of the lockdown. Authorities believe he lived in a semi-abandoned hotel in Cambrils called Daurada Park Hotel. Two years earlier, during an administrative inspection, the Catalan police had discovered a cryptocurrency operation in the basement of the hotel.
In July 2021 Spain’s National Police were notified by Interpol about the charges for tax evasion and arrested him on October 3 at Barcelona’s El Prat airport as he was about to fly to Istanbul. The court’s extradition decision, however, could have been appealed, and McAfee’s defense was already working on this process.
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