‘Top of the curve’? Spain hopes Covid-19 peak reached as deaths pass 4,000
Tentative signs of progress as country’s 655 deaths in 24 hours lower than previous day
Civil defence members carry a patient on a stretcher as they arrive at the Severo Ochoa hospital in Leganes, Spain on Thursday. Photograph: Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images
As coronavirus spreads across Spain and the number of deaths continues to rise substantially each day, the country’s healthcare system is struggling to manage the pressure. However, the government hopes that the most recent figures suggest the tide could be turning against the virus.
The health ministry reported on Thursday that 655 people had died from the virus over the previous 24 hours. With the total number of casualties at just over 4,000, Spain has seen the second-highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world, after Italy.
The numbers of those killed by the virus each day had been increasing by a notable margin over the last week. But the most recent daily figure is seen as being potentially significant because it broke that trend and was slightly lower than that of the previous day.
The health minister, Salvador Illa, said that the latest figures “indicate a change of tendency which makes us think that we are beginning a phase of stabilisation”.
With nearly 8,600 new confirmed infections over the previous 24 hours, just over 56,000 people have tested positive in Spain. But the minister, speaking before a congressional committee, said that the speed at which the infection is spreading is also showing signs of peaking.
“If this overall trend is confirmed, that would suggest that the number of registered cases could be reaching its maximum,” he said. “It’s what we colloquially call the top of the curve.”
However, Illa also acknowledged that the pressure on the country’s already stretched health system is likely to keep increasing, possibly peaking in early April.
Hospitals have been struggling to manage the influx of patients, especially in those areas of Spain which have been hardest hit by the virus. The Madrid region has been the epicentre of the outbreak, and until a few days ago it was registering nearly half of all cases and two-thirds of all deaths.
The spread of the virus into retirement homes, where it has taken the lives of many residents, has been one of the causes of Spain’s relatively high death rate. Earlier this week, defence minister Margarita Robles said that members of the armed forces, who had been helping medical personnel, had discovered the bodies of elderly residents in some care homes, where they had apparently been abandoned. The state prosecutor has announced an investigation.
With many patients forced to wait in corridors for beds, hotels have been converted into makeshift hospitals in the capital, as has the IFEMA conference centre, which has been fitted out with 5,500 beds.
In recent days the virus has been more keenly felt across other parts of the country, such as Catalonia, Andalucía and the Basque region. Catalonia is now seeing more daily infections registered than Madrid. The Catalan capital, Barcelona, is converting four municipal buildings into hospitals as it braces for an upsurge in demand for treatment.
Fourteen per cent of those infected with the virus are medical professionals, exerting further pressure on the system and the government has admitted that there is a shortage of medical equipment.
“All of our [regional and national] administrations are working tirelessly to acquire medical equipment,” said María José Montero, spokeswoman for the central government. “We’re waging a veritable war to get face masks, rapid test kits, respirators.”
Meanwhile, the government has said that it is returning a batch of 9,000 rapid tests that it bought from a Chinese manufacturer, reportedly via a Spanish firm, because they were faulty.
The leader of the opposition Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, said that if it transpired that the company in question did not have a licence then the government had shown “absolute irresponsibility, which should have consequences”.
Mr Sánchez has been facing growing criticism from other parties for his handling of the crisis. However, in the early hours of Thursday morning, he received overwhelming approval from Congress to extend the state of emergency which has been in place for nearly two weeks, until April 11th. It gave the government the power to introduce a national lockdown, which prevents Spaniards from leaving their homes unless they have a specific reason.
The measure means that the streets of towns and cities across the country are virtually deserted. However, the police have reported that they have fined about 100,000 people for flouting the restrictions, while another 1,000 or so have been arrested.
Speaking on Thursday, the head of the armed forces, Miguel Ángel Villarroya, praised those Spaniards who do comply with the lockdown and who come out onto their balconies each night to applaud the country’s health workers.
“I want to pay tribute to the Spain of the balconies, which is decisively contributing to eradicate the disease,” he said.
“We must not falter, now, even though it appears that this flight has plenty of turbulence. Beyond the storm is the airstrip where we can land.”