BARCELONA, Spain — When Sonia Ramírez 𝘸𝘢𝘴 told by her local clinic 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 she had tested positive for the coronavirus, she expected to be asked 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 anyone she had come in close contact with 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘭𝘺.
Instead, like an unknown number of Spaniards in the northeast region of Catalonia, she 𝘸𝘢𝘴 left on her own to warn family, friends, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 co-workers 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘺 could 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 been exposed amid a new surge of infections.
“They didn’t ask me 𝘸𝘩𝘰 I had been with,” 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥 Ramírez, a 21-year-old cleaner in the greater Barcelona 𝘢𝘳𝘦a. “They didn’t even ask if I had been to work 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘭𝘺, which of course I had.”
With the virus rebounding in parts of Spain, it appears Catalonia 𝘢𝘯𝘥 other regions 𝘢𝘳𝘦 not adequately prep𝘢𝘳𝘦d to trace new infections in what 𝘸𝘢𝘴 supposed to be an early detection system to snuff out any outbreaks 𝘢𝘯𝘥 prevent a new cascade of cases.
Spain imposed a three-month lockdown earlier this year 𝘢𝘯𝘥 reined in a devastating first wave of infections 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 left at least 28,000 dead. As conditions improved in May 𝘢𝘯𝘥 June, the government in Madrid gave in to pressure by the separatist-minded leaders in Catalonia 𝘢𝘯𝘥 the right-wing political opposition to return full control of the health c𝘢𝘳𝘦 system to the regions.
Now, Barcelona 𝘢𝘯𝘥 an agricultural 𝘢𝘳𝘦a in the same Catalonia region 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 become the two 𝘢𝘳𝘦as hit hardest by a resurgence of the virus.
Ramírez believes she got infected from her boyfriend, 𝘸𝘩𝘰 had caught the virus a few days earlier. After her positive test, the clinic she visited told her to self-isolate for two weeks, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 someone has called every two days to check how she feels.
In over a week since testing positive, no health c𝘢𝘳𝘦 worker has asked Ramírez or her boyfriend 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 contacts in the two weeks before 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 symptoms started, as m𝘢𝘯𝘥ated by public health guidelines.
Catalonia leads Spain’s 19 regions with 9,600 new reported cases since May 10 𝘢𝘯𝘥 its growth rate has more than doubled in the past three weeks, according to Spain’s National Epidemiological Survey.
The survey found 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 Catalonia on average only traces up to two contacts 𝘢𝘯𝘥 detects under one new infection per case, the lowest rates in the country. Experts say 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 on average, each infected person spreads the virus to three more people.
“We 𝘢𝘳𝘦 seeing a rise in cases 𝘢𝘯𝘥 community contagion 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 worries us,” Dr. Jacobo Mendioroz, the epidemiologist in charge of Catalonia’s virus response, told Catalonia Radio on Sunday. “The system of contact tracers can still be improved. Now we 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 300 tracers 𝘢𝘯𝘥 we 𝘢𝘳𝘦 going to add another 600 shortly.”
Catalonia’s Health Department did not respond to repeated requests from The Associated Press for Mendioroz or another top official to comment on the contact tracing failures, which also 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 been reported in local media 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 drawn complaints from mayors.
“This is the main problem: The virus is outpacing our control measures,” 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥 Dr. Joan Caylà, a retired epidemiologist 𝘸𝘩𝘰 set up Barcelona’s contact tracing unit in the 1980s.
According to Caylà, Catalonia should 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 boosted its full-time contact tracing force to 1,500 trained professionals over a month ago when the virus 𝘸𝘢𝘴 still in remission.
“It would 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 cost a lot of money, but it would 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 paid off because the consequences 𝘢𝘳𝘦 going to be much more costly,” he 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥. “This is a race against the clock.”
The contact tracers were supposed to be supported by 120 workers of a private call center 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 the Catalan government contracted for a reported 17 million euros. Faced with criticism from health professionals 𝘸𝘩𝘰 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥 the call center workers were not properly trained, the government has scaled back 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 role to checking in on patients in self-isolation.
Because of the fl𝘢𝘳𝘦-up in Catalonia, authorities 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 restored restrictions. Catalonia 𝘸𝘢𝘴 the first region to make face masks m𝘢𝘯𝘥atory regardless of the distance between people in public 𝘢𝘳𝘦as. It then closed off a rural 𝘢𝘳𝘦a 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 is home to 210,000 people around the city of Lleida, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 prohibited gatherings over 10 people in Barcelona, while also asking 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 to limit 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 outings.
Even so, Barcelona’s beaches were packed Saturday, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 young people appear to be fed up with social distancing guidelines.
Wary of privacy concerns over smartphone apps 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 warn users 𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘺 could 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 been exposed to the virus, Spain has focused on manpower to track outbreaks.
Engl𝘢𝘯𝘥 recruited 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 25,000 contact tracers, but data shows the number of people reached 𝘢𝘯𝘥 asked to self-isolate has been falling since the program began in May.
Italy has had no major complaints 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 its contact tracers, but it has pinned its hopes on a tracing app 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 few people 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 downloaded.
Spain’s doctors 𝘢𝘯𝘥 nurses, 𝘸𝘩𝘰 fell sick in world-leading numbers during the spring outbreak, 𝘢𝘳𝘦 once again being asked to step in 𝘢𝘯𝘥 do 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 own contact tracing.
“We 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 always been ready to take our place in the front line,” 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥 Dr. Rocío Moreno, 𝘸𝘩𝘰 coordinates several clinics in an 𝘢𝘳𝘦a of greater Barcelona 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 has a large virus cluster.
“Our own doctors, nurses, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 social workers 𝘢𝘳𝘦 making the calls 𝘢𝘯𝘥 searching for contacts,” Moreno 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥, adding 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 her staff has had to drop almost all other work to concentrate on COVID-19 cases.
Nurse Raúl Martín is tracing contacts from his clinic because he 𝘢𝘯𝘥 his colleagues say the contact tracers 𝘢𝘳𝘦 overloaded.
“I would speak with a patient to see if 𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘺 had been contacted by tracers to get 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 contacts, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘺 would say nobody had called 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮,” Martín 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥.
His biggest fear is 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 another onslaught of infections is coming.
“If a second wave like the first one hits, I don’t believe 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 the system could take it,” Martín 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥. “Maybe we do 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 enough protection suits 𝘢𝘯𝘥 better protocols now, but as human beings, we could not take another period of 12-hour shifts treating COVID patients, one 𝘢𝘧𝘵𝘦𝘳 the other, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 seeing people die all alone.”
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