As new COVID-19 outbreaks continue to spring up with growing frequency across post-lockdown Spain, a northern region has managed to become the country’s first to gain the official status of “coronavirus-free.”
Asturias, a relatively isolated region nestled between formidable mountain ranges and the Cantabrian Sea, has surpassed the virus’s maximum incubation period of 14 days without recording a single new case.
The last time anyone was diagnosed with the infectious disease in Asturias was on June 11.
The milestone was not achieved by following the advice of the American president and slowing down testing. On the contrary, Asturias has been among the top Spanish regions in testing per capita, one of the key methods put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO) to stop the virus’ spread.
According to the latest testing data by Spain’s Health Ministry from June 25, Asturias had lab tested 1.2 people out of every 10 in the region – the third-highest in Spain after La Rioja and the Basque Country.
In the week leading up to June 25, Asturias tested 6,202 people for the virus and found no cases. In the week between June 5 and 11, just before the contagion stopped, the region did an average of 1,466 tests to find just one person with COVID-19.
And even though the region is now considered contagion-free, the microbiology lab at the Central University Hospital of Asturias (HUCA) continues to do around 800 tests per day, according to Spanish daily El Pais.
No celebrations yet
The region’s president, the Socialist Adrian Barbon, has been unflinchingly cautious throughout the pandemic.
Upon hearing the news that Asturias was officially coronavirus-free on Monday, far from claiming any victory, he warned that now is not the time to relax.
“This is exactly why it’s so important to keep our guard up, avoid new outbreaks and use masks. We all depend on each other for this,” he tweeted.
Unlike an island country like New Zealand, which also went around a month without detecting any cases, Asturias now has its borders wide open to the rest of Spain and the European Union. It has no ability to independently regulate who is allowed to come in.
For over a week now, anyone from harder-hit places in the European Union like Madrid, the UK, or Sweden has been allowed to enter the region freely and without quarantine.
But while Asturias is known for its beautiful green landscape, charming cities, and hearty cuisine, its often grey and rainy weather has largely kept it an off-the-beaten path destination for those in search of sunny summer holidays.
Its lack of international flights or a high-speed rail connection also may have played in its favor so far when compared to neighboring regions Cantabria and Galicia, which both saw outbreaks last week.
But its status – even if only temporarily – as coronavirus-free could ironically pique the interest of travelers looking for safer destinations.
“The health crisis isn’t over. New outbreaks are emerging across the country, and I’m sure Asturias won’t be an exception,” Barbon told a press conference Thursday.
“The important thing is to control outbreaks when they emerge. But if we relax rules without respecting social distance or wearing masks, we run a serious risk that outbreaks become uncontrollable, which will lead us to a new lockdown.”
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‘A lot of people doing a lot of things right’
Although Asturias is home to Spain’s oldest population, with an average age of 48 years old (compared, for example, with Turkey’s average of 31) and there are more dogs than children, it was able to avoid the collapse of hospitals and massive numbers of deaths seen elsewhere in Spain this spring.
So far, it has recorded 2,435 cases and 334 deaths with a population of around 1 million, easily beating the Spanish average.
In Asturias, 98.3% of nursing homes residents managed to survive the first wave of COVID-19, whereas El Pais reports that in Madrid, around 15% of all senior home residents have so far lost their lives to the virus.
But Asturias is still above the US, Brazil, and Russia in terms of per capita mortality.
So how did a region in one of the countries most devastated by the pandemic manage to get rid of new contagions for now?
To begin with, Spain underwent one of the strictest lockdowns in the western world. For several weeks, residents across the country were confined to their homes and not even allowed to exercise outdoors, as in most other countries.
The lockdown in Spain was strictly controlled, with authorities issuing around 20,000 steep fines and 100 arrests in Asturias during the state of alarm that ran from March 14 until June 21, according to local newspaper El Comercio.
Masks still remain mandatory in all situations where 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) of distance cannot be maintained between people.
Across the country, cases declined dramatically, although they have begun to inch up again since the lockdown ended – and over 1,900 cases were detected in the last two weeks nationwide.
Experts say other factors that have set Asturias apart, besides its geography and world-class testing driven by one of the country’s best microbiology labs, as well as its well-coordinated, well-funded public system and individual precautions.
“There are several factors behind our success, including early anticipation, close tracking of the virus, how we attended to patients and citizen behavior,” Rafael Cofino, head of the region’s public health, told local newspaper La Voz de Asturias.
“We always say that there were a lot of people doing a lot of things right in different places,” he added.
As of 2019, Asturias led Spain in social spending, shelling out 68.4% of its budget to take care of its citizens’ basic needs, including health, according to a study by the State Association for Social Service Directors.
Asturias was also one of nine of Spain’s 17 regions that had recovered social spending to pre-financial crisis levels.
Indeed, social spending and collective concern are part of the region’s culture. Asturias has been governed by the Socialist Party for around 88% of its history since it gained democratic status in 1978.
The region, nowhere near one of the wealthiest in Spain, shows that the coronavirus contagion can be eradicated, but laying the groundwork for improving the quality of public health is a process that takes years.
“This is an achievement for the Asturian people,” Barbon told Cadena Ser on Monday. “It shows that fighting really can pay off.”
Still, aggressive government ad campaigns reminding residents of the lockdown, deaths, and terrified healthcare workers are present across the region’s public and private media outlets.
On the streets, you can see most people wearing masks and respecting distance, but there have been major slip-ups. Over the weekend, two nightclubs in the region’s capital city of Oviedo were shut down by police for breaking the rules of the new normal.
“This all started with one person. Are you going to be the one responsible for it happening again?” asks an actress with a grave expression in a sobering black-and-white public service announcement.