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COVID-19 Cases Drop in Catastrophic Portugal

Updated: Feb 5


A hearse at a care home where a resident died of COVID-19 (Photo by Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP)

In Portugal, cases of active COVID-19 infection dropped for the third consecutive day, according to Expresso (February 3).


The Directorate General of Health (DGS) reported 240 deaths – the lowest number in the past 12 days – and 9,048 new cases in 24 hours. As there are more than 11,000 cases of recovery, the number of active cases has fallen for the third consecutive day, which has not happened since the beginning of December. As for hospitalized patients, there are 91 fewer beds occupied, a decrease for the second consecutive day, reported Expresso.


Good news, and, slim as it is, hopefully, the beginning of a trend.


“Portugal is currently the country most affected in the world by COVID-19, in proportion to its population of 10 million,” according to Globo (January 30). “To date, the total balance of the pandemic has reached more than 12,000 deaths, almost half of which occurred since the beginning of the year.”


Since January, Portugal has been suffering at a rate reminiscent of Italy during the first wave last year. The country is in the midst of an extended lockdown. Fique Em Casa (Stay at Home), the pandemic slogan displayed on television screens, posters and in newspapers, has taken on an even deeper meaning this year, which is still so new. More and more people know someone who has had COVID-19 or died from it. Mortuaries are struggling as they try to make room for bodies, and dates for funerals are being booked for later than usual.


The National Health System has strained to keep up with its number of beds, doctors and nurses. At its worse, 45 ambulances lined up on January 28 outside a Lisbon hospital, waiting for admission of COVID-19 patients, according to SIC Noticias (January 30). Treatment of some of the patients was done inside the ambulances. The numbers eased when a new screening process, carried out by the National Institute of Emergency Medicine (INEM) and the Portuguese National Authority for National Protection (ANPC PRT), came into effect. Also, people were asked not to go to the hospital unless directed by a doctor.


Germany responded to Portugal's appeal for help by dispatching eight military doctors and eighteen nurses for a three-week stint as well as 50 ventilators and 150 beds to Lisbon on February 3, reported SIC Noticias (February 3).


How did Portugal find itself in such a dire spot?


Before Christmas, the United Kingdom announced the discovery of the more virulent U.K. strain. At the same time, the Portuguese government relaxed Christmas Eve and Christmas restrictions. In hindsight, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that he regretted this. Before the holidays, there were reports of an increase in the number of people getting tested but, apparently, of little consequence to the overall situation.


“The growth rate of the British variant reached 90 percent,” according to RTP Noticias (January 30). “The Ricardo Jorge Institute estimates that within two weeks when we reach the middle of February, this virus will represent 65 percent of COVID-19 cases in the country.


“At this point, researchers are also analyzing suspected cases of strains from Brazil and South Africa.”


Also, this week, the Directorate General of Health and Infarmed, Portugal’s national authority of medicines, study and wait for input from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on who should get the AstraZeneca jab, which is scheduled to arrive in Portugal next week, according to TSF Radio Noticias (February 2) The EMA approved it on January 29.


Because of poor representation in trials of older people, Germany’s regulator has said that it will not administer AstraZeneca jabs to those older than 65. Norway and Denmark have said the same, according to SIC Noticias (February 4). Belgium’s regulations advised against giving it to those over 55, according to The Guardian (February 3). The Belgian decision echoes that of authorities in France, Poland and Italy, where regulators caution use among the older population.


The Oxford Vaccine group director, Andrew Pollard, said that older people in the United Kingdom, which approved and began administering his product in December, should be reassured that the jab is safe and that there is data showing a “strong immune response” in older people, reported The Guardian.


Where is this data?


The European Center for Disease Control reported that Portugal has received 387,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna products and has administered 310,000 doses in the nation of 10.3 million, or about 80 percent, which is the 7th highest rate among the European Union’s 27 member countries, according to The Associated Press (February 4).


The inoculation program progressed on February 3 to include those older than 80 and those over 50 with such pathologies as heart failure, coronary disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with ventilation support and/or long-term oxygen therapy, according to SIC Noticias (February 3).


This week, there have been reports of vaccine abuses across Portugal: a doctor’s husband, a man who called himself the head of a household, relatives of workers at care homes.


Graça Freitas, the director-general of health, asked people to trust in the system, reported SICNoticias (February 4).


Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that those who are getting undue jabs must be punished, according to SIC Noticias (February 3).


“Whoever doesn’t follow the vaccination rules has to be punished. It’s simple,” said Costa, according to Publico (February 3). “It is essential that everyone respects the criteria. Nobody wants to overtake anyone and, understanding that, we are all anxious to get our vaccine turn, we must wait. It is like when we take the bus, or are at the supermarket: sometimes it is boring to have to wait for the people in front of us, but no one has the right to overtake others and has to respect themselves.”


In the meantime, Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo became the new head of the vaccination task force on February 3, a day after his predecessor resigned amid scandals over jab queue-jumping and frustration over a sluggish rollout similar to that seen in other European Union countries, according to The Associated Press (AP) (February 4).


“At the current rate of vaccination of just over 10,000 doses a day on average, Portugal will reach its target of 70 percent of vaccinated adults only in 2023,” reported AP. “Its goal was to reach that milestone in late summer this year by inoculating around 50,000 people a day.


“Portuguese officials note that they have received fewer vaccines than promised from manufacturers and say EU authorization of more vaccines will help accelerate the program.”


Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, who was already head of the vaccine task force as part of its military support, said that he has a long to-do list.


“The problem is not in the vaccination process itself,” he said, according to AP. “It’s in the vaccines arriving here, and that’s a process at a pan-European level, so Portugal can’t do much more.”


He said that he intends to tighten controls on who gets the vaccine.

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