Health minister forecasts quarantines to end in April

Argimon suggests covid will become influenza-like as long as no new variant appears

3 min
The Minister of Health, Josep Maria Argimon, in an archive image

BarcelonaThe Minister of Health, Josep Maria Argimon, announced this Friday that the month of April can mean a before and after in the management of the coronavirus in Catalonia. If a new variant does not appear that displaces Omicron, which is more contagious but at the same time causes milder symptoms, the Department of Health will stop making the daily count of cases and, in short, will treat the covid as a flu. This will mean stopping diagnostic testing of all suspected cases and ending quarantines and lockdowns of both positives and their close contacts, which in this second case now only affects the unvaccinated. "If the disease is as it is now, fundamentally mild, it is of little interest to count case by case", Argimon highlighted.

The Government is beginning to consider the phase of coexistence with the virus even though the health authorities do not foresee the end of the pandemic in the near future. The prognosis is that in the long term the coronavirus will end up being normalised and becoming endemic –there will be controllable outbreaks on a regular basis– taking into account that most of the population has some kind of protection against the virus (they are vaccinated or have passed the infection) as happens, for example, with the flu.

In an interview on RAC1, Argimon explained that from spring onwards current universal surveillance –trying to reach as many cases as possible and notify them– will be abandoned in favour of carrying out a "reinforced surveillance" or sentinel surveillance, which consists of collecting samples at different points in Catalonia to cover a population of between 300,000 and 500,000 people to calculate the incidence of the virus, carry out sequencing to control mutations and monitor the most serious cases that could end up in hospital.

The protocol to be followed by the population would also be different: the person with symptoms will have to stay at home and isolate themselves (they will only go to a health centre if their state of health worsens) and they will not have to report their close contacts. "If someone feels unwell, they will stay at home. But if there is no need for sick leave, there will be no need to consult," Argimon said.

A week ago, the minister was reluctant to open the debate on covid becoming like a flu, assuring that it was "premature". Now he has stressed that for six days now the explosion in cases has "slowed down" and that the last three days there has been a "brake" in the entry of patients to hospitals. However, he warned that there are still a few difficult months of winter ahead because the high number of infections –800,000 infected since December 20 in Catalonia– disrupts the functioning of schools, the health system and businesses.

Uncertain future of the covid passport

The sixth wave leaves some very high incidences and Argimon has warned that in the coming days high case numbers will continue. This is due to the fact that the authorities are testing children, who are registering the highest incidence. The minister said that the peak in infections in the over-20s was reached on January 13 and added that in the last month 800,000 infections have been reported, mostly mild because they are caused by the variant omicron and the high vaccine coverage. In fact, for every 1,000 people infected, only 0.6 are now admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). According to the most updated data, this Friday there are 2,709 hospitalized patients (6 more), but two fewer admitted to the ICU (500).

Argimon has explained that the Generalitat's covid-19 commission will review the restrictions in force next week, among which is the ten-person limit on social gatherings, restrictions on capacity in commercial, sporting and cultural businesses and events, and the closure of nightlife. He also hinted that changes could be announced. In fact, he admitted that he would not take the same measures that were decided at the gates of Christmas now, as the lesser impact of the Omicron variant has become known.

Also at the end of the week, the Health Department expects to receive the report on the revision of the covid certificate by the scientific advisory committee on whether it is appropriate to maintain this measure to access bars and restaurants. Argimon has admitted that this restriction was intended for a less contagious variant. Omicron is more easily transmitted, even among those vaccinated, and also has a higher risk of reinfection.