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Europe considers new COVID-19 strategy: Accepting the virus

MADRID (AP) – When the coronavirus pandemic was first declared, Spaniards were ordered to stay home for more than three months.

For weeks, they were not allowed outside even for exercise. Children were banned from playgrounds, and the economy virtually stopped.

But officials credited the draconian measures with preventing a full collapse of the health system. Lives were saved, they argued.

Now, almost two years later, Spain is preparing to adopt a different COVID-19 playbook.

A woman wearing a face mask reads a book on a subway in Madrid, Spain, Thursday. With one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates and its most pandemic-battered economies, the Spanish government is laying the groundwork for a new different COVID-19 playbook. AP

With one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates and its most pandemic-battered economies, the government is laying the groundwork to treat the next infection surge not as an emergency but an illness that is here to stay. Similar steps are under consideration in neighbouring Portugal and in Britain.

The idea is to move from crisis mode to control mode, approaching the virus in much the same way countries deal with flu or measles. That means accepting that infections will occur and providing extra care for at-risk people and patients with complications.

Spain’s centre-left prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, wants the Europe Union to consider similar changes now that the surge of the omicron variant has shown that the disease is becoming less lethal.

“What we are saying is that in the next few months and years, we are going to have to think, without hesitancy and according to what science tells us, how to manage the pandemic with different parameters,” he said on Monday. Sánchez said the changes should not happen before the Omicron surge is over, but officials need to start shaping the post-pandemic world now: “We are doing our homework, anticipating scenarios.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that it’s too early to consider any immediate shift. The organisation does not have clearly defined criteria for declaring COVID-19 an endemic disease, but its experts have previously said that it will happen when the virus is more predictable and there are no sustained outbreaks.

“It’s somewhat a subjective judgment because it’s not just about the number of cases. It’s about severity, and it’s about impact,” said Dr Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief.

Speaking at a World Economic Forum panel on Monday, Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious diseases doctor in the US, said COVID-19 could not be considered endemic until it drops to “a level that it doesn’t disrupt society”.

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