Saturday, May 21

Why the Canary Islands are a clear example of how to follow the evolution of the pandemic right now

One good thing and one not so good: the Canary Islands reported only two admissions to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) due to COVID in the week from February 27 to March 5, a figure that had not been repeated since August 2020 , when the pandemic had broken out in the spring and granted a respite in the summer. But the Archipelago is also, at the moment, the community with the highest incidence of the virus in Spain, with 865.19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 14 days, doubling the national average (429.71). A double reality that is a clear example of how to measure the evolution of the pandemic today, after omicron and vaccines.

The Ministry of Health and the autonomies have agreed this Thursday to put aside the daily accounting system for COVID and go on to notify only serious cases or those that occur in vulnerable people. The reports that the Government publishes every day and that end up filling the news will become weekly or bi-weekly summaries of the epidemic, opening the door to a new phase of disease control. One of the keys, as advanced, will be the exclusive use of PCR and antigens for people over 65 years of age, immunosuppressed, pregnant women or vulnerable areas. It is not yet known when it will take effect.

The Canary Islands experienced the worst weeks of the pandemic at the beginning of the year. In mid-January, for example, it registered 71 deaths in seven days. That had never happened. To give us an idea, the highest figure that had previously been reached in the same period of time was 34 deaths, in January 2021. Ómicron showed the Canarian population and the rest of the world that the virus is still present. And that if it mutates, as it has been doing these two years, it can wreak havoc again.

But the image is now different. And that the Archipelago experienced a small spike in infections at the end of February, predictably caused by the progressive increase in mobility and the return to face-to-face work. According to analysis of Google Made from the geolocation of mobile phones, the canaries are very close to recovering the face-to-face routine that existed before a pathogen invisible to the eye shook the foundations of the Earth.

That the lethality of COVID has plummeted is a fact. But if this is already less than that of the seasonal flu, it is information that is less relevant. As recently reported by the Financial Times, of every 100,000 infected with omicron in the United Kingdom, 35 would die, while the equivalent of infected by the flu would result in 40 deaths. “Is omicron the same as the flu? No. But the vaccines have made the individual risks similar,” said Raghib Ali, a clinical research associate at the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge. In Spain, according to the latest report from the Carlos III Health Institute, the fatality rate is 0.2%, taking into account diagnoses since October 14, 2021.

“It is clear that we are entering a different phase of the pandemic, a phase in which the cases lose importance and therefore counting them does not make much sense”, reflects Lluís Serra, professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC). “We have lost the ability to track and diagnostic capacity, with the vast majority of cases practically asymptomatic.”

Serra assures that if the Canary Islands lead the incidence table it is “because we are doing more tests than the rest of the autonomous communities.” A “less active” attitude is already being faced, says the epidemiologist, and “COVID is no longer the serious problem it was two years ago.” The Archipelago tested 32,092 people from February 28 to March 6, a rate of 1,473 per 100,000 inhabitants. Only four autonomies carried out more tests.

Another factor that has undoubtedly influenced the increase in infections on the Islands, which stabilized a few days ago, is the presence of the omicron subvariant, BA.2, more transmissible than the original but not more serious. according to studies carried out so far. Canarias is the community with the highest prevalence of this lineage in all of Spain. Up to 49.8% of diagnosed cases belong to this strain.

“It probably has something to do with it. Also that some of the measures have been relaxed. This may be influencing the fact that COVID cases are above the national average, but at the moment they do not have a critical consequence in terms of hospitalizations,” says María del Mar Tavío, professor of Microbiology at the ULPGC. “The virus will continue to circulate among us. As has happened with other respiratory viruses.

For this reason, adds the expert, it is not surprising that there are seasons in which the incidence increases. And others in which it is far below. “We are close to entering spring, this makes the weather conditions improve and allows us to have more life outside. When we go back to autumn-winter, we cannot rule out that we will do a follow-up as strict as it has been done up to now”.

For Quique Bassat, a pediatrician specializing in Tropical Medicine and Epidemiology at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), the value of the incidence is now not “misleading” as it might seem. She certifies how much the virus is circulating in a given population and will always do so. But it is true that “we digest it differently”. In fact, while the Archipelago was experiencing this small rush of infections, the authorities were keeping the protection measures against the virus in a drawer.

“The arrival of ómicron, with all its infections, but relatively less clinical significance, has opened the door for us to rethink how to live with COVID. It is a good time to change the way you monitor it. And people are eager to get back to the life they had before all this”, Bassat stresses. It is plausible to think that, in the event that the new surveillance model was already implemented, the Canary Islands would go from leading the list of communities with the worst coronavirus data to being at the bottom of Spain.