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Sunday May 16th, 2021 11:20AM

Sharp virus spread in Madrid leads to new anti-outbreak plan

By The Associated Press
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MADRID (AP) — Spain's capital and its surrounding suburbs, the European region where a second coronavirus wave is expanding the fastest by far, are edging toward stricter curbs on people's movements and social gatherings following a political dispute that angered many Spaniards.

Health officials from Spain’s central government and the Madrid region agreed on a set of health metrics late Tuesday that should dictate standardized restrictions in cities with a population of 100,000 or more. Approval of the plan, which would mostly affect the greater Madrid area, was pending at a meeting of health officials from all Spanish regions later Wednesday.

The deal, outlined by Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa, came after weeks of sour public disagreement on how to tackle uncontrolled virus clusters in Spain's capital at a time when the efficiency of the country's decentralized political system has come under scrutiny.

The central left-wing government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez demanded tougher action that did not only target working-class neighborhoods, as do existing restrictions in the parts of the city with the highest contagion rates. But the center-right Madrid government resisted a citywide partial lockdown, arguing it didn't want to further damage the regional economy.

Madrid is leading the resurgence of the virus in Spain and Europe. The region has a two-week infection rate of 784 cases per 100,000 residents, which is 2 1/2 times higher than the national average of 294 cases and seven times higher the average rate in Europe, which stood at 94 per 100,000 residents last week, according to EU statistics.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases have risen steadily nationwide since a state of emergency declared over the pandemic ended in late June. Sánchez, facing some criticism for hoarding too much power, handed over control of the pandemic to Spain's 17 regions.

In theory, the move gave regional officials the ability to fine-tune their responses to new outbreaks according to local conditions, but results from the change have varied.

While the Aragon, Asturias and Galicia regions in the north saw their infection curves ease and avoided major case clusters, Madrid has accounted for one-third of the new cases reported daily in the past few weeks. As the number of confirmed cases multiplied there, regional officials handed the blame back to the central government, demanding help and national guidelines.

Much of the conflict has to do with a decades-long political fight for control of the Madrid region, a conservative stronghold that for more than two decades has provided a showcase for the policies of the conservative Popular Party.

The main question on Wednesday was whether the new Madrid deal on virus restrictions would get approval from other regions, which complained they were being given a yoke in order to justify the capital's partial lockdown.

Catalonia's health chief, Alba Vergés, said the northeastern region would follow its own plan.

“They reach a deal and want to disguise it as an inter-territorial coordination agreement,” Vergés told the regional public radio. “But in the end, it’s no more than their inability to act in Madrid now that the situation is out of control.”

Under the new metrics, all large cities would be subject to new curbs if they record a two-week infection rate above 500 cases per 100,000 residents, have ICU occupancy above 35% of maximum capacity, and if more than 10% of virus tests performed come back positive.

The restrictions include having to justify trips in and out of the cities, capping gatherings at six people, closing playgrounds and limiting customers and opening times at shops and restaurants.

Over 1 million people already live under such measures, and many expressed doubt Wednesday about how effective they are.

“The government should fine those who don't abide by the medical recommendations, like young people,” Carlos Medrano, a taxi driver in central Madrid, said. “Only when you target people's pockets is when they start complying."

Fellow taxi driver Gregorio Muñoz, agreed that the current measures were insufficient. “It would be better if we stayed at home and didn’t go out, like we did in March," Muñoz said.

Spain has reported more than 758,000 confirmed coronavirus cases during the pandemic and a virus death toll of over 31,600, although experts say all numbers understate the true toll of the pandemic due to limited testing and other factors.

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Bernat Armangue in Madrid contributed to this report.

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

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