Health Department expects peak in ICU four days before the election, but does not say whether it should be postponed

Department admits it will be unable to immunise all members of poll stations before 14-F

MIREIA ESTEVE / QUIM BERTOMEU / NÚRIA ORRIOLS

The possibility of holding elections on February 14 now seems less certain. The Health Department expects hospital ICU occupation to peak on February 10, just four days before the election. This was stated in the report provided by the Department to the parties represented in Parliament at the technical meeting held on Monday, where, among other issues, the advisability of holding these elections in the current epidemiological situation was discussed. The Health Department also foresees that at that time there will be around 850 patients in ICUs across Catalonia. Furthermore, it estimates that before the election campaign begins, around 20 January, contagion will reach its maximum, with some 6,000 cases a day. The report, published by La Vanguardia and to which the ARA has had access, does not explicitly state whether the elections should be postponed or not. The question of whether they will take place, therefore, remains.

The Health Department also warns that the predictions of epidemics and pressure on healthcare in the coming days make it "unlikely" that measures can be taken that will lead to a "very significant de-escalation" of the current situation. In fact, they warn that they foresee a "very slow decline in new cases" in the coming days and, above all, in the number of patients admitted to hospitals, and especially to ICUs. In this sense, the department estimates that on February 14 Catalonia will have between 4,500 and 5,000 cases per day and there will be 840 patients admitted to ICUs. This would be the worst scenario, if we take into account that the transmission speed increases due to the New Year's Eve celebrations. However, the department predicts a less serious scenario with a more stable increase in infections that would lead to 3,000 new infections on 14 February and 610 patients admitted to ICUs. However, it should be borne in mind that these figures would already force hospitals to deprogramme ordinary activity.

In fact, until 14 February, the Health Department expects that healthcare activity that is not related to covid-19 will be deprogrammed to "different degrees" and that healthcare centres will have to devote themselves "intensively" to caring for patients who have been infected with coronavirus, in addition to maintaining the pace of vaccinations. The department also admits that it will be "difficult" to "optimally track" the large number of infections. In addition, the Health Department warns that an acceleration of infections caused by the UK variant of the virus cannot be ruled out.

Immunisation will not be possible

During the meeting, according to several sources consulted by ARA, the secretary general of the Health Department, Marc Ramentol, admitted that there is not enough time to immunise poll station members, who are picked randomly. The Health Department had planned to give the vaccine to those picked, but there is not enough time to administer the two doses of the vaccine.

According to the electoral calendar, established by law, the draw will take place between January 16 and 20 and those chosen must be notified by January 23. The Health Department would have less than a month left to complete the vaccination process for these citizens. The period between doses for the Pfizer vaccine is 21 days on average, while for the Moderna vaccine - which is not yet being supplied - it is 28 days. Including the members of the electoral months in the first groups of the vaccination plan was one of the agreements of the previous meeting between the parties and the Government, but, according to officials, it will not be possible.

This is in addition to the latest decision of the Central Electoral Board not to exclude people over 60 from the draw to man poll stations. The request had been made by the Minister of Foreign Action, Bernat Solé, due to the situation of the pandemic and the National Electoral Board made the agreement public on January 7. The electoral body leaves it up to the Zone Electoral Boards to decide whether they will accept "the excuses that voters may make regarding their incorporation to the poll stations," but it does not say that they can be excluded from the draw.

"We must wait"

Now the million dollar question is: will there be an election on February 14 or will it be left for later? There is still no answer. Sources from the Department of Foreign Action - in charge of organising the elections - argue that no decision has been made: "We must wait.

However, several parties, including JxCat, have asked the Foreign Affairs department to make a proposal on whether or not to postpone the elections. Sources at Junts assure that they will do what the health authorities recommend, but ask not to prolong this decision any longer. They say that, despite being in the government, ERC - who run both Health and Foreign Affairs - have not shared with them their views on February 14. They also regret that Salud does not specify what is "the effect" of getting five million people to vote, beyond situation prior to the vote taking place.

After the meeting, Marc Castells, PDECat spokesperson at the meeting - in which he participated for the first time - also called for speed. "We cannot prolong this decision making, it would be of great cowardice. Politics is about speaking to people clearly and making decisions," he said.

ERC's assistant general secretary, Marta Vilalta, has promised that the decision will be by "consensus" from all groups but has not wanted to advance scenarios. ERC sources, however, defend that everything is "ready" to vote on the 14th. The same sources regret that JxCat has pressured Foreign Affairs and Health departments to express an opinion on whether or not it is possible to vote and consider that it should be a "choral" decision.

Of the rest of the parties, the clearest is the PSC, which considers that the elections can only be postponed if a home confinement like the one in March is decreed again, an unlikely scenario. Rising in the polls, the socialist leader Eva Granados has recalled that Galicia, the Basque Country and the USA have already voted in a pandemic: "We must have respect for the virus and contagion, but not fear". The rest of the parties have been more accommodating. En Comú and Cs, for example, have not voiced a preference and consider that the decision has to be taken following sanitary criteria. In any case, everyone agrees that in the meeting on Monday no one has openly proposed an electoral postponement.

The final decision, on Friday

The final decision is expected to be taken this Friday 15th, in a new meeting that the Government will hold with the same parties, this time in Parliament. Knowing sources explain that one day earlier, on Thursday, Health will update the epidemiological data to analyse if there is a New Year's eve effect, i.e. a possible increase in infections because of parties. This should allow a more accurate picture of the moment before making a final decision which, despite the diversity of opinions, the Government wants to be taken by consensus.

How will those infected vote?

After the experience of Galicia and the Basque Country, where the vote of those infected was forbidden, the Government committed itself to guarantee the right to vote for everyone. Therefore, the executive has launched a campaign to encourage voting by mail, and also provides recommended slots for infected people and their contacts to vote. This is the last hour of the day, from 7pm to 8pm. To make this possible, they propose that members of polling stations wear personal protection equipment (PPI).

So far, however, some experts, such as epidemiologist Magda Campins, have been against this type of solution and have called for the elections to be postponed on the grounds of "responsibility". Campins advises the Catalan Ombudsman, along with other health and legal experts, who last week said in a report that he considered it an "attack on public health" to skip the confinement to go to vote. That is why he asked for the deadlines for postal voting to be extended until the day of the elections. You can now apply to vote until February 4 and vote by absentee ballot until February 12.

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