Will Spain’s high vaccination rates help weather Omicron?

MADRID – A month ago, Spain was leaping high in its successes against Covid-19. The number of cases in the country has been among the lowest in Europe, and nearly 80 percent of the country has been vaccinated, leaving few people eligible to be vaccinated.

Then came the Omicron variant, and success gave way to uncertainty.

Three cases of the variant have so far been detected in Spain, where the number of Covid-19 infections rose steadily throughout the month of November. The advent of the variable now prompted local governments to quickly roll out new measures that they were considering. Catalonia introduces a Covid-19 ‘passport’, the first of its kind in Spain. The Basque Country is an emergency declaration that includes restrictions on bars and restaurants that look like a return to the past.

The new steps show how fragile the gains against the virus are. But the country’s widespread acceptance of vaccination may prove crucial.

If the current vaccines provide good protection against the variant, Spain can be largely protected against a possible new wave. If fighting Omicron required a reworking of vaccines, the Spanish would appear ready and willing to take another shot if their leaders recommended it.

“In terms of vaccines, there is broad consensus in Spain among citizens – they follow the recommendations of scientists,” said Salvador Illa, the former Spanish health minister who oversaw the country’s response during the first year of the epidemic.

Experts attribute Spain’s success in the vaccine, in part, to the widely trusted public health system, which spearheaded the effort. Politicians also played a big role, taking their doses with fanfare early on and avoiding the politicized debate about a vaccine. Spaniards, for the most part, followed their leaders’ health guidelines when it came to vaccinations, masks and other precautions.

Initially, the delay in rolling out an EU vaccine left Spain behind the United States and Britain. But with supply issues resolved, the country quickly caught up. Now, nearly 90 percent of those eligible for the vaccine — anyone over the age of 12 — have had it, with very few Spaniards left to be vaccinated.

Wander the streets of Spain and one comes across a Europe that is different than usual in most parts of the continent. Masks are not only worn indoors, but also outdoors residents In many cities where the government has not requested them for months.

And while battles over the pandemic response have been commonplace in Spain’s charged political landscape, almost no one has worried whether citizens should be vaccinated – an area where almost no major politician would venture.

Many said one of the main reasons for this consensus on vaccines was that Spain was hit hard by the pandemic early on. About 15,500 people died from Covid-19 in April 2020 alone, putting Spain’s first wave in line with those in countries like Italy and New York. Spaniards flooded the addresses of tube-ridden hospitals with sick patients and temporary mortuaries that received corpses.

The experience left a deep collective will to vaccinate, said Rafael Villasanjuan, policy director at ISGlobal, a public health think tank in Barcelona.

“In the first wave, we were completely unprotected. There was nothing,” he said. “That was a big deal in Spain.”

Countries like Germany and Austria, where vaccine resistance is now Firm in some corners, also faced deadly waves of infection. But they came later in the epidemic. In Germany, 69 percent of its 83 million population Fully vaccinatedWhereas in Austria, a country of about nine million people, 67 percent are fully vaccinated.

It was here, Mr. Villasanjuan said, that Spain’s demographics are working positively toward vaccine acceptance: the country doesn’t have many seniors at risk – nearly 20 per cent of the population – but young Hispanics live with their parents until they reach the average age of 30.

This led to many multigenerational families where young people received vaccinations to protect older relatives.

“There was respect between generations which resulted in more people being vaccinated,” Villasanjuan said.

Another factor that may have set Spain apart from other countries: its politicians have largely avoided turning the scientific consensus on vaccines into a debate.

Spain certainly remains a polarizing country. Nationalist confrontations and the emergence of a far-right political faction have torn the country apart in recent years, which would have made it fertile ground for the combination of politics and vaccine resistance seen in the United States.

However, while some marginal figures in Spain Speak Against Vaccines Politicians were rarely followed during their release. The biggest discussions centered largely on the Spanish economy and whether it was a pandemic Lockdown has gone too far.

José M. Martin Moreno, professor of preventive medicine and public health in Valencia who has also worked with the World Health Organization, said.

The general store run by Rebeca Torres and her family in the remote mountain village of Navarredonda de Gredos provides a window into Spanish positions in the fight against COVID-19, where consensus is not up for debate.

While customers were walking around inside on a snowy day recently, they didn’t need to wear masks before entering: they did. Alongside the rows of local bread and bottles of red wine, there were public health advertisements calling for people to get their third dose.

Ms Torres said almost no one in town had even heard of anti-vaccine activists or their allegations. She explained that she takes immunosuppressive drugs for multiple sclerosis and said she has spent years trusting the science. She thought there was no need to stop now.

Maria Luisa Hernandez, a pharmacist in the nearby village of Hoyos del Espino, said she believes it was the first wave of infections in Spain that prompted residents to accept vaccines as soon as they became available.

She estimated that about 60 percent of the area’s population is elderly. Closures closed public health clinics during the early weeks of the pandemic, and people could only reach their doctors by phone, with many older residents unable to navigate the complex system of online prescriptions.

Ms. Hernandez, whose pharmacy has remained open during the lockdown, ended up becoming the only health professional to meet patients in person, leaving her with the role of doctor for many in town. She and everyone she knows have been vaccinated: she said no one wants to go back to the situation in 2020.

Despite the success of the vaccine, Spain remains on edge, due to the Omicron variant and the new wave of Covid-19 cases that started before the variant was discovered. New infections have more than tripled in recent weeks, to about 190 cases per 100,000 people in the past 14-day period.

However, the numbers are much lower than in other countries in Europe, such as Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, which are now among the hardest hit by the infection.

However, Francesca Hernandez considered this no reason to let her guard down.

This 77-year-old man, who is not related to the pharmacist, lives in one of the typical multigenerational families in Spain. Her daughter moved in with her after she lost her job. Her son, a cattle breeder, constantly meets other men as they take their cattle to pastures, and then they come to see her.

She said she got her third shot last week. Everyone in her family will soon have their own once her youngest grandchild qualifies.

“In my circle, there is no one who has not been vaccinated,” she said. “We know this is the only solution.”

Roser Toll Pifarré contributed reporting from Barcelona.

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