The residents who inhabit the 16 floors of the building located at number 4 of the Plaza de Haro, in Bilbao , have been harassed by the virus since mid-January. In two weeks, a covid outbreak has been unleashed that has left five dead, at least three hospitalized – one of them very serious – and 33 positive in total, added to the residents and their close contacts.
Both the Department of Health of the Basque Government and several experts consulted handle the hypothesis that a supercontagator has spread the virus helped by the intense use of the two elevators, with five seats each.
The first scare came on the 21st, when a neighbor who lived on the ninth floor died. The death by covid of the 85-year-old woman alerted the neighbors, but it was not until two days later, on Saturday the 23rd, when they began to become aware that they had a serious problem.
That Saturday the 50-year-old’s son died. The building administrator, who does not live in it, learned of these events on Sunday, January 24, when one of the owners called him.
That same Sunday, with the help of neighbors, he hired a disinfection company and on the night of 26-27 a specialized firm cleaned the common areas of the building. An invoice of about 700 euros that the community paid in full.
The neighbors had breakfast that day 27, for the first time since January 9, in which Health had evidence of the first positive, with the building clean. But also with other sad news. One of the residents of the 11th floor, 84, had died the night before. This Saturday two other neighbors died of the virus, two brothers aged 73 and 75 who lived in the first.
Salud had evidence of the first positive on the portal on the 9th. From then until the 26th, when the common areas were disinfected and the windows were opened to favor ventilation, the virus traveled up and down without restrictions, aided by the two elevators of the property. The first action of the Basque Government was on the 25th, with the screening to look for infections from neighbors and close contacts.
The case of the Bilbao building reminds José Jiménez, a researcher at the Department of Infectious Diseases at King’s College London, of what became known as the “ground zero” of SARS, the previous outbreak of a coronavirus, which generated a health crisis in 2003.
Chinese doctor Luis Jianiun stayed on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong . There it infected 16 people who spread the virus to Canada, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan. It is suspected that it happened through the common areas, perhaps the button to dial the ninth floor in the elevator, that the first infected and all the others infected touched.
As in the Hotel Metropole, at number four in the Plaza de Haro all the neighbors led a normal life until they suffered the first symptoms and the Health Department began to monitor their condition. But there was no notification from the Government to the community regarding the accumulation of cases.
The residents of the 9th would take their pet out for a walk two or three times a day and the rest went to their usual chores, to work or shopping, with no restrictions other than individual measures, such as wearing a mask or washing their hands.
The use of the common areas has even affected people who do not reside in the building. One of them is another of the children of the first victim, who is suspected of being infected in one of the visits he made to his mother and brother to take the dog for a walk when they could not: first by being quarantined and then by being hospitalized.
Another contagion probably occurred on Sunday the 24th, when a neighbor was infected who entered her friend’s house on the 11th floor to see how she was doing. He and his wife have already been discharged after needing hospitalization. Although Health does not specify how many of the 33 positives are neighbors of the farm and how many close contacts, “at least” half would be residents in the building, according to the count made by the neighbors themselves,
“There are people who have a very high viral load and who, due to their social activity, spread more than the average”, explains Jiménez. It is what is known as supercontagators . “If one of them uses the elevator a lot, this could be the source of contagion,” he continues.
Although he also believes that there may be another explanation, or a complementary one: “It could be that the building’s ventilation is connected and is very poor, as is often the case in some bathrooms. Something similar has already happened in South Korea ”.
A cameraman takes video footage in front of a night club now closed following a visit by a confirmed COVID-19 coronavirus patient, in the nightlife district of Itaewon in Seoul on May 12, 2020. – South Korean authorities were using mobile phone data on May 12 to trace Seoul nightclub visitors as they try to tackle a coronavirus cluster, they said, promising anonymity to those being tested due to the stigma surrounding homosexuality.
At number 4 of Plaza Haro, built in 1973, only one wing has a small patio and the neighbors do not report construction deficiencies, such as connected extraction hoods. Neither was one of the elevators reserved for even floors and another for odd floors, which could explain the higher incidence of positives on the latter. Indistinctly, those of some plants and others, breathed the same air and touched the same surfaces of the common spaces between the 9th and the cleaning, on the 26th, when the three deaths had already occurred.
The experts they consult believe unlikely that the infected family dog had a direct role in the transmission of the virus. Pedro Gullón, from the Spanish Society of Epidemiology, explains that there is no data that these animals can infect humans. “In any case, they could behave like surfaces,” he sums up. That is, so that the virus travels from one person to another when it touches a common surface.
“There is no evidence that companion animals are playing an epidemiological role in the spread of human infections by SARS-CoV-2, ” says Gullón. However, the World Organization for Animal Health recommends that people suspected of having covid or with the confirmed disease avoid close contact with their companion animals and that another member of the household take care of them, extreme hygiene practices and use of mask.
The Department of Health of the Basque Government, which has ruled out that the outbreak was related to the British strain, as was initially raised, assures that it is investigating the case and that “epidemiological monitoring” of the outbreak is still continuing. However, it does not specify the results of the new tests. “There are still confined and hospitalized neighbors,” add department sources.
“We are hardly going to return to normality in the short term,” says a neighbor who regrets the whole situation. “I feel sorry for the victims, the affected neighbors and for the fear that we are experiencing, but also for the businesses in the square that are losing part of their customers due to the alarm that has been created.”
Access to the portal of the building is in a corner of the square. Now the door is permanently open, as well as the windows on the landings between floors. A group of four young people rush their coffees on one of the concrete benches that surround the square. “We all have to learn from this,” says the community manager.