Spain to adopt mask-wearing outdoors amid record virus surge

International

People walk past Christmas lights in downtown Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. Despite vaccination rates that make other governments envious, Spain and Iberian neighbor Portugal are facing the hard truth that these winter holidays won’t be a time of unrestrained joy. The reason is the new omicron variant that has been running rampant across Europe. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

MADRID (AP) — Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is convening a special Cabinet meeting Thursday to pass a law by decree that makes it mandatory to wear masks outdoors, amid a record surge in COVID-19 cases.

Sánchez announced at a meeting with the leaders of regional governments Wednesday that he was consenting to their appeals to extend mask-wearing rules, his office said. A decree-law does not require a debate and vote in parliament before taking effect.

He also announced a raft of other measures, including an offer to deploy the armed forces to help the regions step up their vaccination rollout and put military hospital beds at their disposal if they are needed.

Sánchez said he is targeting 80% of the 60-69 age group to have received booster shots by the end of next week, among other goals.

Also, COVID-19 tests for professional use will temporarily be placed on sale at pharmacies, amid a reported shortage of tests, and medical teams will be reinforced with retired staff and specialists who earned their qualifications outside the European Union.

Furthermore, fully vaccinated people won’t need to quarantine if they have been in contact with an infected person – a measure that seemed to be aimed at avoiding the shortages of essential personnel.

Spain on Tuesday officially recorded almost 50,000 new cases of coronavirus. That’s higher than last January, when a surge placed the national health system under severe strain.

Spain is reporting almost 700 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days, more than double the accumulated cases before last year’s Christmas holidays. The omicron strain has soared from 5% of new cases in Spain to 47% within one week.

Still, vaccinations are credited with sparing many people from the virus’s worst effects. While last January some 30,000 COVID-19 patients were in the hospital in Spain, now it’s fewer than 8,000.

Sánchez told the Spanish parliament Wednesday that 90% of the target population 12 and over is fully vaccinated.

He told lawmakers: “Don’t worry, families will be able to celebrate Christmas. Spain has prevailed.”

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