MADRID, March 19 (Reuters) - Spanish authorities promised to take special measures to prevent more deaths from the coronavirus epidemic in nursing homes after cases of mass contagion there swelled the country’s death toll to 767 on Thursday, 209 more than the previous day.
With 17,149 total cases, up by a quarter from Wednesday, Spain is the second worst-hit country in Europe after Italy, with a state of emergency in place that largely bars Spaniards from all but essential outings. Authorities said 49 people had been arrested for disobedience in the past few hours.
“The toughest moments are still to come, those moments when we will continue to see an increase in the number of cases,” Health Minister Salvador Illa said.
Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias told the same video-link news conference that nursing homes had to be urgently equipped with proper medical facilities and staff, promising also more aid to vulnerable groups in general.
“It is an absolute priority to respond to the situation in care homes for the elderly,” he said.
On Wednesday, prosecutors in Madrid, the epicentre of the epidemic in Spain, opened an investigation into more than 17 coronavirus-related deaths at a nursing home where patients had been locked down without access to hospital care. Other similar cases were reported elsewhere in the country.
The authorities would not say how many people had died in nursing homes in total.
While the disease kills the elderly more often, it claimed the life of a 35-year old policeman without prior health problems and that of a 52-year-old nurse - the first victim within Spain’s stretched healthcare system.
Still Fernando Simon, the head of the health emergency centre, said Spain was “probably slowly approaching the peak of cases.”
“We hope it will be in a few days, it can’t be far away,” he said.
In downtown Madrid, the Ayre Gran Hotel Colon that had offered to host patients with mild symptoms from an overcrowded hospital nearby, opened its doors on Thursday after fitting its rooms with medical equipment.
Accompanied by security escort, one ambulance driven by paramedics in white overalls, goggles and masks pulled up to the side of the hotel and a passenger was ushered swiftly inside.
Hotels in Madrid have offered 60,000 beds to the health service, authorities said.
Several thousand troops have been deployed in 59 cities across Spain to help with decontamination efforts, triage and policing.
“This is a war of all Spaniards, we all have to be involved in the fight against the coronavirus,” said Gen. Miguel Angel Villarroya, the armed forces chief of staff, suggesting using “weapons such as discipline, the spirit of sacrifice and winning spirit”.
Economy Minister Nadia Calvino called for an EU-wide fiscal response to the health crisis in an interview with Antena 3 TV, after praising the latest European Central Bank’s bond purchase scheme to help blunt the impact of the disease
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Wednesday predicted an economic slump this year in Spain, although saying that a 200 billion euro ($220 billion) package of measures to help companies and protect workers and other vulnerable groups could bolster a swift recovery. (Additional reporting by Inti Landauro, Jesus Aguado, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Marco Trujillo, Belen Carreno Writing by Andrei Khalip Editing by Ingrid Melander and Angus MacSwan)