Health Department considering allowing pharmacies to carry out antigen tests

De-escalation plan will relax restrictions every two weeks

GEMMA GARRIDO GRANGER / PAU ESPARCH

Catalonia is considering allowing pharmacies to carry out antigen tests. The Catalan government is working on a plan to establish the conditions that the 3,300 pharmacies in the Catalan network will have to meet to be able to carry out these rapid tests. "Any effective tool that we can make available to epidemiological control will be good," said the Minister of Health, Alba Vergés, who confirmed what the Secretary of Health, Marc Ramentol, had said on Sunday.

"It is a diagnostic test and it has to be done and interpreted with all the safety guarantees", underlined the coordinator of the covid-19 monitoring unit, Jacobo Mendioroz. The epidemiologist has argued that, in the event that this strategy is deployed, the people who use it must be "protected" and the spaces must be "correct". In other words, they must ensure the privacy of the patients: " We are not interested in crowds of people, some with symptoms and others without", he stressed.

Pharmacies have been seeking permission to carry out antigen tests, and other regional governments, such as that of Isabel Diaz Ayuso in Madrid, have backed the idea. The final decision, however, belongs to the Spanish Agency of Medicines (Agemed), which has to expressly authorise the sale of the tests, since they will not be able to be acquired, in principle, freely without previous prescription. The Minister considered that this case is part of a "public health policy" in which the Health Department and pharmacies "work to control the epidemic".

The Catalan Government plans to continue with the policy of testing symptomatic people or contacts of infected people in order to contain the epidemic, and is working with pharmacies so that they can become another testing point. According to Ramentol, the permission for pharmacists to test is a potential that should not be ignored "as long as it is within the framework of a public health strategy and always using tests with demonstrable reliability". Catalonia is promoting the use of these rapid tests so much that it has already acquired eight million. However, Vergés has pointed out that, in no case, does Salud want to do "as Madrid". "We are not replacing PCRs with antigens", she said, but these latest tests "complement" them on a temporary basis.

ICUs are still too full

De-escalation, which will begin next Monday, November 23, will be progressive, with several phases - "at least three or four", which will be announced fortnightly, as the Councillor advanced this Monday. The Government is committed to working with the affected economic sectors, most notably the hospitality industry, although concrete measures are yet to be revealed. In fact, no agreement has been reached yet. "We will work on the plan together with the sectors and they will know about it before 23rd November", Vergés said.

The health authorities have defended the progressive lifting of the restrictions from Monday because of the "good trend" of the data of the last days.  Vergés highlighted that Catalonia registers less than 3,000 infections per day and that the whole country is going in the right direction. "We are considering easing measures because the epidemiological trend is consolidating", she stated. Vergés also highlighted that the rate of infections is still below 1.

However, she warned that the new trend is yet to be "consolidated", since "we are still at peak pressure on healthcare". Vergés admitted that reducing infections to a thousand and 300 patients in ICUs, as the government set out less than a month ago to return to a phase of containment, is "very difficult": "We will not get there: we are seeing a small but very slow decline," explained the coordinator of the covid monitoring unit, Jacobo Mendioroz, who is confident that the reduction in infections will also reduce the number of new admissions.

Covid: ICU admissions rate slow down but mortality up

Catalonia has not yet overcome the peak of hospitalisations and cases attended to in primary school just a week after the restrictions were relaxed. There are still 2,535 people hospitalized and 587 in ICUs, and 444 deaths in just seven days. "The health system can be greatly harmed if we don't ease restrictions in a proper manner," Vergés admitted.

"We have managed to overcome a key challenge which is to avoid total confinement by maintaining essential aspects such as education and work," said Mendioroz. The epidemiologist, however, admitted that Catalonia is going through a "delicate moment" because, despite the improvement in the indicators (the rate of infection is 0.78 and EPG is 438), "the healthcare situation is bad".

Fewer offences due to restrictions

The curfew and the weekend's perimeter closure, apart from having an impact on covid-19, have been noticed in crime figures. Crime has fallen by 30% in Catalonia: last November the daily average was 1,783 complaints and now it is 1,247 - yesterday it was 669. Petty theft is the crime that has fallen the most, from 583 cases per day to 310. However, reports of fraud in Internet shopping have increased: a year ago the average was 213 and now it is 254.

The Catalan Minister of Home Affairs, Miquel Sàmper, has attributed the fall to three factors. Firstly, he linked it to the decrease in mobility due to the curfew and the perimeter closure. According to the Minister, the increase in police presence to control the monitoring of the measures and the fact that part of the economic activity has to be closed have also had an influence.

In fact, police have filed 2,738 complaints this weekend for breaching the restrictions, a figure that is slightly increasing. They also closed 27 establishments that had ignored opening restrictions. During the weekend, agents have identified 7,259 people to check whether or not they were breaking the measures to stop the covid-19 and have again intervened in parties in private homes: one in the Eixample in Barcelona with 15 people, one in Cervelló in a chapel and another in Girona with more than thirty people. Since 16 October, police have filed 31,044 complaints for failing to comply with the restrictions and have acted against 549 establishments.

Likewise, Sàmper has admitted that it is "a certain contradiction" that traffic is increasing on Thursdays due to the perimeter closure at the weekend (which applies between Friday and Monday). The Minister explained that the increase in vehicle traffic on Thursdays is between 8% and 12%, although he added that "it is much lower than what would occur on a normal weekend. However, he noted that between Friday and Sunday the fall in traffic has continued. Despite the upward trend on Thursdays, Sàmper has ruled out extending the perimeter closure: "It could be made even longer, but we think it would be stretching it too much".

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