Catalonia prompts debate over Spain's official Covid-19 death toll

Other regions also question Spanish government numbers

Catalan health minister Alba Vergés at a press conference on March 11, 2020 to explain the coronavirus outbreak in Igualada (by Blanca Blay)
Catalan health minister Alba Vergés at a press conference on March 11, 2020 to explain the coronavirus outbreak in Igualada (by Blanca Blay) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

April 17, 2020 09:28 PM

Late Thursday night, the Catalan health department issued a press release in which Covid-19 figures were broken down not only by the usual cases and deaths in medical centers and elderly care homes per region, as previously seen, or only with the additional information provided by funeral homes as it had begun to do on Wednesday, but was far more detailed than ever before.

This time around, the health department also included information on both confirmed and suspected Covid-19 deaths at medical centers and elderly care homes per region, as well as those confirmed and suspected as reported by funeral homes.

Funeral homes consider all fatalities regardless of where they have taken place, elevating the potential coronavirus death toll in Catalonia to over 7,500 on Thursday when only days prior the official count had still been under 4,000 – roughly a fifth of Spain's official total.

And while Catalan authorities claim to have decided to release this information in the name of briefing the public on the situation "as transparently as possible" after mounting questioning on figures, especially concerning elderly care homes, health minister Alba Vergés has stressed that funeral home numbers were not official either.

Although this implies both that funeral home figures could be inaccurate as well as that some suspected Covid-19 deaths may take a while to be confirmed or may never be so, Catalan authorities believe these numbers are "closer to the truth."

Speculation that the official death count is not entirely accurate, however, does not date back to criticism over handling of care homes – in fact, Marc Castells, the mayor of the hard-hit central Catalonia city of Igualada that was once under even stricter lockdown than the rest of the country, already suggested weeks ago that the numbers put forth by local funeral homes were well off the official count.

Disparity between daily figures

The official coronavirus death toll announced on Friday during one of the Spanish government’s daily press conferences on the public health crisis grew by over 500 people, but the total count only increased by 348 from the 19,130 declared on Thursday to 19,478 the following day.

The number of people discharged from medical centers was also similarly confusing: according to the Spanish health ministry, 3,502 people had recovered in the past day, but the total count went down from 74,797 on Thursday to 72,963 on Friday.

Without specifying which region had led to this disparity, the head of Spain’s emergency services Fernando Simón attributed it to a "problem" with one of the autonomous communities' reporting on the matter and said that Pedro Sánchez’s government had been receiving data from two separate sources. The Spanish health ministry then stated that these disparities would be corrected in the coming days. 

Madrid region estimates death toll almost twice as high

The only Spanish region with a higher official coronavirus death count than Catalonia is Madrid, where on Friday the Spanish Health Ministry set the number at 7,007.

But voices of dissent are also emerging from the People's Party-led government of the region whose large Palacio de Hielo ice-skating rink has had to be converted into a morgue as regional authorities calculate that coronavirus-related fatalities in Madrid could actually be closer to 13,000.

This figure, like the elevated one seen in Catalonia, takes into account deaths at medical centers, but also at nursing facilities and homes, as well as of people who presented symptoms compatible with the disease but were never confirmed to have had it.

Spanish government defends methodology

Meanwhile, Spanish health minister Salvador Illa has continued to defend the methodology used throughout Spain to determine the official death count.

The minister maintained on Thursday that Spain was "following a very strict definition of cases in line with international authorities including the WHO and the ECDC."

"We are very rigorous and therefore the credibility of the Covid-19 information and data that we have provided up until now is entirely credible," the minister added on Friday, countering all accusations to the contrary.