Dr Elena Vanessa Martínez of the Spanish Epidemiology Society. / R. C.

'We can't have dinners with 25 people from five different households'

This expert is asking people to be careful about how they celebrate at Christmas because the health crisis "is not over yet"Elena Vanessa Martínez President of the Spanish Epidemiology Society

ÁLVARO SOTO MADRID.

The president of the Spanish Epidemiology Society, Elena Vanessa Martínez, is asking society to make a final effort to overcome the sixth wave of Covid-19.

–Is Omicron more dangerous than previous variants?

–For now, we need to be cautious. What we do know is that most cases that we have information about have been mild, but we can't be certain that that will be so in every case or if it is because those people had been vaccinated. At first sight, it doesn't look too bad. This happens a lot of the time with viruses; their survival mechanism is to kill cells, but they don't want to die either. So, if they become less severe, it is easier for them to keep going. What is clear is that prevention is essential. The measures we have been taking so far (masks, distance and hygiene) are still working and it is possible that with Omicron there may be some vaccine escape, but among people who are vaccinated the illness is mild.

"The pandemic has taught us this won't stop on its own"

–Is it possible that there are more cases than those which have been officially notified?

–Yes. Catalonia has said it detected the virus in its sewage two weeks ago, and as cases without any links to South Africa have been discovered in Europe, it is probable that it was here as well.

–You work in the Coordination Centre for Health Warnings and Emergencies (CCAES), and on Tuesday they recommended reducing the numbers of people at Christmas celebrations.

–At Christmas people get together in enclosed spaces and, especially, to eat and that is where the greatest risk lies. If what we are trying to do is reduce transmission, we have to take every measure we can to get ahead of the virus from a technical point of view. The pandemic has taught us that this isn't going to stop on its own.

–But politically, the ministry and most of the regions agree that there should be no extra restrictions before Christmas.

–Our job is to show, from everything we have learned about the virus, what needs to be done to reduce the risk to health. After that, the decision is up to the politicians.

–Before Omicron appeared, Spain was already in a sixth wave. How far is this going to go?

–I'm not able to predict that, but the way it is evolving is not good. We need to maintain the preventive measures and take action which is very focused, for example in places where the bars are all in a certain area, in places where measures are not complied with at certain times or in settings which are not just the hospitality industry. Each situation has to be studied individually, because a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work. We also need to increase the percentage of people who are vaccinated by finding out why some people do not want the vaccine.

–If the percentage of vaccinations is so high, why is Spain in this situation where cases are shooting up again?

–I also thought that by now we would be in a better situation. My intuition is that, in general, we have relaxed measures and in some places they have disappeared altogether. We have seen, for example, that crowds gathered when Christmas lights were switched on in towns and cities. We must not forget that the virus is still here, that a percentage of the population has not been vaccinated and another percentage is not immune because the vaccines are not 100 per cent effective. It is not over yet. We have to make a final effort. At Christmas, we can't have dinners with 25 people from five different households. We have to avoid risks. I'm not saying we have to shut ourselves indoors on our own, there is no reason to think we are heading for disaster or start to panic, but we do have to remember that the pandemic doesn't come to an end just because we happen to be vaccinated.

–Is it going to be important to vaccinate children?

–It is important to vaccinate children if they need to be vaccinated. Any medication, and the vaccines are a type of medication, carry a risk and the risk/benefit always has to be measured. Firstly, I would say that I'm not sure whether it is necessary to vaccinate all children, but we do if they have underlying health conditions or respiratory problems. This needs to be studied carefully, because it is not just a case of being able to vaccinate them, but whether we need to.