Thursday, February 22

The end of indoor masks fractures communities

Health and the autonomies meet today in Zaragoza to discuss this restriction and advance in the ‘flu’ of covid

Alvaro Soto

Open war between communities over masks. The end of the mandatory nature of this protection element will come “very soon”, as the President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez, has reiterated in recent weeks, but the exact date on which the decision will be made has opened an unexpected confrontation. The Ministry of Health and the autonomies meet this Thursday in Zaragoza and in principle, Minister Carolina Darias had set herself the goal of discussing in this meeting the first steps to start a new stage in the surveillance of covid-19, the controversial process called ‘influenza’ (basically, not controlling all infections, but serious cases of hospitalization), but the discussion about masks threatens to overshadow the debate.

As has happened on many occasions during the pandemic, the Community of Madrid champions the most permissive initiative. At the appointment, the Government of Isabel Díaz Ayuso will propose to the rest of the autonomies the abolition of the use of the mask in all interiors, except in residences, hospitals and public transport. And not only that: Madrid will also ask to eliminate isolation for asymptomatic patients (except for vulnerable people in residences and hospitals) and limit the performance of diagnostic tests, which will remain in the hands of professionals. “We are facing the end of the acute phase, surely the sixth wave, but also quite likely, of the pandemic,” says the Director General of Public Health of Madrid, Elena Andradas.

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With less forcefulness, but in a similar sense, the president of the Andalusian Government, Juanma Moreno, spoke on Wednesday, calling for a “gradual and responsible” removal of the mask, although “always following the criteria of the experts.”

The proposal of the Government of Ayuso basically coincides with the approach of the Ministry of Health, but probably not in the terms. And above all, it collides with the approaches of other communities. The most forceful has been Extremadura, which criticized the “sensationalist” communities that intend to remove the masks “without the consensus of the Interterritorial Health Council.” The spokesman for the Junta de Extremadura, Juan Antonio González, stated that this “is not a question of who says it first”, but rather “a more serious matter, which must be based on consensus and science”.

“Some communities, in the interterritorial councils, make announcements with great fanfare, but we do not make announcements with great fanfare, we ask for the consensus of all the communities, precisely out of respect for that body where we all speak,” said González. The Basque Country is also against the immediate end of the masks. “First we must know the opinion of the experts, then discuss and decide and finally communicate it,” believes the Minister of Health, Gotzone Sagardui. But her criticism is not directed only at the autonomies in favor of an express withdrawal, but at the central government, which she accuses of “confusing” the population with its messages. “Some demonstrations before the meetings are held do not seem appropriate to me. It creates a lot of speculation. There must be more co-governance”, claimed Sagardui. In between, the rest of the communities, waiting for the technical reports to find a date.

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Spring or Easter

At the end of last year, before the omicron explosion, the Ministry of Health considered the beginning of spring (March 21) as the right time to eliminate masks indoors. Now the discussion is more focused on whether it will be before or after Holy Week, between April 10 and 17.

Everything changed with omicron. The new variant left very high incidences, of up to 3,400 cases per 100,000 inhabitants at the end of January, and although there has been a notable decrease since then, the fall has slowed down in recent days, when Spain is still not below the 400 points. Other European countries, with much higher incidences, have already eliminated the obligation, but Spain does not seem willing to do so yet.

The most likely option, which Catalonia will propose at the Zaragoza meeting, is to start the de-escalation of the mask in schools, check if the incidence does not skyrocket and from there, gradually remove it in closed spaces. An investigation by the Computational Biology and Complex Systems group of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), presented on Tuesday, showed that the mask has not been a decisive tool to contain the virus in schools.

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