Facing 2nd virus wave, Spain tracks infections with soldiers

In this photo taken and provided by the Spanish Government on Tuesday Aug. 25, 2020, Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez arrives to give a news conference at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain. Sanchez has offered officials running the country's 17 regions help from the military to conduct coronavirus contact tracing. He has also pledged to declare regional emergency orders if the expansion of the pandemic continues, facilitating regional officials' ability to issue lockdowns, restrict mobility or other basic freedoms.

Under strain from Europe’s fastest-growing wave of coronavirus infections, the Spanish government cleared the way for more localized lockdowns Tuesday and deployed the military to bolster the country’s faltering attempts to trace infections.

With more than 400,000 confirmed cases since the onset of the epidemic and dozens of fresh daily clusters only days before the school year begins, Spain is grappling to slow the uncontrolled transmission of the virus. At least 28,872 people in the country have died with COVID-19 since February, although the figure doesn’t include many who died without being tested for the virus.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Tuesday following the first Cabinet meeting after the summer recess that Spain’s current infection rate is “preoccupying” but “far from the situation in mid-March,” when his government imposed a state of emergency and a nationwide lockdown.

“There should be no fear that paralyzes us and prevents us from acting,” the Socialist leader said in a televised statement. “What’s needed is a stronger response to the threat.”

Sánchez offered officials running the country’s 17 regions 2,000 soldiers trained in contact tracing, which experts have identified as one of the country’s weakest points in the aftermath of the pandemic’s first wave.

He also pledged to declare regional emergency orders if virus continues spreading, something that should in theory help regional officials level issue new stay-at-home orders, restrict mobility or to curtail other activities.

In Spain’s highly decentralized system, regions took over the pandemic management from the central government in mid-June, at the end of the 3-month lockdown. But some judges have ruled against regional moves to restrict nightlife entertainment, outdoor smoking or to impose localized confinement orders.

Regional officials, in turn, have complained that their hands are tied because only central authorities can legally declare a state of emergency.

The prime minister’s offer to make such a declaration when regions request it was criticized by opposition parties, which accused Sánchez of deflecting responsibility.

“Spain has no one at the helm. There is a total absence of leadership,” said Pablo Casado, the head of the conservative Popular Party who leads the opposition to Sánchez’s left-wing coalition government.

The country’s uncompromising lockdown helped reduce the virus expansion until June, but some experts have said that in the light of the recent surge of cases the restart came too early and too fast. The gains from weeks of efforts halting the economy and keeping 46 million residents largely at home have vanished quickly during the summer, long before officials expected to encounter a second wave.

Part of the blame is being directed at the insufficient tracking of whoever may have come close to those who test positive. Officials at the Health Ministry have said that more than 60% of the new infections happen in social gatherings, including within families.

In addition to offering military support, Sánchez also encouraged Spaniards to download a mobile application that the government is rolling out region by region and that, according to the prime minister, would help track the spread of the virus.

The recent rebound in new cases, including 7,100 reported on Tuesday, has again made Spain the country with the most confirmed cases in Europe, with a total of 412,553. Spain’s cumulative incidence of 175.7 infections for every 100,000 inhabitants during the past 14 days, a variable closely watched by epidemiologists, is the highest by far in the region. Only Malta, with 123.6 cases per 100,000, also is above the 100 mark.

Some regions of Spain, like Catalonia in the northeast and Murcia in the southeast, have extended bans on social gatherings of more than 10 and six people, respectively. Authorities in Madrid, now again in the spotlight for the fastest pace of new recorded cases, are recommending citizens to only leave home for truly necessary activities.

Anxiety is also building among parents and teachers who are expecting revised protocols for a safe return to schools, with eyes set on a key government meeting on the issue Thursday. Kindergarten classes are scheduled in the Spanish capital and the northern Navarra province to start Sept. 4, with most regions kicking off the new school year by the third week of the month.

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