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 confe...

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 confe...

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

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

Following the first Cabinet meeting after the summer recess, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Tuesday that the infection rate is “preoccupying,” but called it “far from the situation in mid-March," when his government imposed a state of emergency.

“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 the spread of the virus continues, something that should in theory help officials at a regional level to issue stay-at-home orders, restrict mobility or curtail other basic freedoms.

In Spain’s highly decentralized system, regions took over the pandemic management from the central government in mid-June, at the end of a strict 3-month lockdown. But some judges have ruled against regional moves to restrict nightlife entertainment, outdoor smoking or even to impose localized confinement. Regional officials, in turn, have complained that their hands are tied because a state of emergency can only be legally declared by central authorities.

Monday's offer by Sánchez to make such declaration when regions request it was criticized by opposition parties, which said the prime minister was deflecting responsibility.

“Spain has no one at the helm, there is a total absence of leadership," said the head of the conservative Popular Party, Pablo Casado, 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 contagion.

The sharp increase in coronavirus infections has placed Spain at the top of the European charts in terms of total cases. 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, is above the 100 mark.

Some regions, 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 starting the new school year by the third week of the month.

___

Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak