The number of hospital admissions and deaths continues to decline, but experts advise caution in the face of winter uncertainty and the interaction of the coronavirus with other respiratory viruses.
Since COVID-19 infections began to fall at the end of July, epidemiologists have been watching for when they would rise again. None assumed that the decline would be continuous until the eradication of the disease, something ruled out in the near future. There had to come a time when the infections stabilized or even began to rebound. And that is what has already happened.
This Thursday, the Accumulated Incidence (AI) has marked 43.2 diagnoses per 100,000 inhabitants in 14 days, 2.7 more than after the fifth wave (40.5), which was registered last Thursday. In the week since then, the curve has been experiencing very slight ups and downs, but it is clear that the downward trend has stopped for the moment.
Is it worrying? The experts consulted answer that, a priori, not much. The risk remains low and “was within the foreseeable”, assures Ana María García, professor in Public Health at the University of Valencia. “Obviously, the virus continues to circulate, and now, with practically no restrictions, it is normal for it to grow a little. But it is a slight rise that has no repercussions regarding the severity of the cases”, she adds.
Predictions in the pandemic have often been flawed, and experts prefer to be cautious. No one knows for sure how the contagion curve will evolve. Spain is today one of the countries in the world that combines a lower incidence with higher vaccination rates ( 80% of the population has received two doses of the vaccine).
A steep rise and a new wave similar to the previous ones seem to be ruled out. “It can continue to rise, but we do not expect it to be rapid growth or impact on the healthcare system. Now two things are worrying: unvaccinated people (10% of the population over 12 years old) and that the protection against punctures falls, something that we are not seeing”, explains García. The hospital situation continues to improve. This Thursday, there were 1,775 admitted, of which 434 were in intensive care units.
Precautions must be maintained
Fernando Rodríguez Artalejo, Professor of Public Health at the Autonomous University of Madrid, explains that certain precautions must be maintained because we are at the gates of the winter season. “The COVID-19 will be mixed with the flu and other respiratory viruses, and we will have to see what happens. If we were in May with these figures, I would speak of total tranquility. But since it is October, it is good to maintain the precautionary principle and measures such as masks indoors,” he says. Face masks are practically the only measure that remains in effect outside of schools. It is for this reason that experts see this slight increase in cases as expected.
José Jiménez, a researcher on emerging viruses at King’s College London, argues that although there is data that indicates that current vaccines limit the transmission of the virus and infections, the truth is that they do not prevent the possibility of becoming infected.
“Therefore, if the measures are relaxed, it is normal for infections to rise. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the primary goal of these vaccines is to prevent severe forms of disease and death. In Spain, where a large part of the population is fully vaccinated.
All those consulted, including Jiménez, agree that the virus will not disappear: it will continue to circulate.
“The good news is that vaccines have completely changed the scene compared to previous waves. Therefore, and as we are currently observing, even if the virus continues to circulate, the probability of becoming seriously ill and dying from COVID-19 will be much lower. This does not mean that we have to forget about the virus completely. If we should have learned something already during this pandemic, it is that the virus can always surprise us,” the researcher clarifies.
José María Martín Moreno, a doctor in Epidemiology and Public Health from Harvard University, has an impact on this: “We are at levels that are identified with a low risk of transmission, and consequently of care pressure. But, although this situation opens up optimistic expectations, we must insist that this does not mean that the risk is zero or zero. As the virus is present and still circulating in many countries, the potential to mutate is still there. And if it mutates in an undesirable way, new, more contagious, threatening variants may appear that escape the defense potential of the vaccines we have used.”
To illustrate the fact that it is convenient to avoid triumphalism, Martín Moreno continues, we must not only recall the experience of last year when it was said that the pandemic had been overcome in Spain. There are examples of other developed and relatively nearby countries that, with “foolishly optimistic” announcements, relaxed the restrictions “prematurely.” “This is the case of the United Kingdom and its freedom day, which has led to an accumulated incidence today some 20 times greater than that we have in Spain.