2021-10-01 13:36:34 In Portugal, There Is Virtually No One Left to Vaccinate

In Portugal, There Is Virtually No One Left to Vaccinate

Portugal’s health-care system was on the verge of disintegration. Hospitals in the capital, Lisbon, were overcrowded, and officials advised people to treat themselves at home. Almost 2,000 people died in the last week of January as the Delta variant spread.

The government turned to Vice Adm. Henrique Gouveia e Melo, a former submarine squadron commander, to right the ship.

After eight months, Portugal is among the world leaders in vaccinations, with roughly 86 percent of its 10.3 million population fully vaccinated. According to Admiral Gouveia e Melo, nearly 98 percent of all those eligible for vaccines — anyone over the age of 12 — have been fully vaccinated.

“We believe we have reached the point of group immunity and nearly herd immunity,” he said. “Everything appears to be in order.”

Portugal lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions on Friday. There has been a significant decrease in new cases, which now number around 650 per day, and there have been very few deaths.

Many Western nations, despite having ample vaccine supplies, have seen inoculation rates plateau, with more than 20% of their populations remaining unprotected. As a result, other governments are looking to Portugal for guidance and are watching to see what happens when nearly every eligible person is protected.

False dawns have been as common in the coronavirus pandemic as new nightmare waves of infection. As a result, Portugal could still suffer a setback.

Worrying signs have emerged from Israel and elsewhere that vaccine protection can wane over time, and a global debate is raging over who should be offered booster shots and when.

According to Admiral Gouveia e Melo, Portugal may soon begin offering boosters to the elderly and those deemed clinically vulnerable, and he believes they will all be available by the end of December.

But, for the time being, as bars and nightclubs buzz with activity, infections decline, and deaths decline, the country’s vaccination drive has succeeded despite encountering many of the same roadblocks that caused others to fail.

The same flood of vaccine misinformation has flooded the Portuguese social media accounts. The country is governed by a minority left-wing government, which reflects the country’s political divisions. And, according to polls, there was widespread skepticism about the vaccines when they first arrived.

Admiral Gouveia e Melo is credited with turning the ship around. With a background working on complex logistical challenges in the military, he was appointed to lead the national vaccination task force in February.

The admiral, who stands 6 feet 3 inches tall, made a point of wearing only his combat uniform in his many public and television appearances as he sought to essentially draft the nation into one collective pandemic-fighting force.

“The first thing is to make this a war,” Admiral Gouveia e Melo said in an interview about how he approached the job. “I use military language as well as war language.”

While politicians all over the world have used similar martial rhetoric, he stated that it was critical to his success that he was widely perceived as uninvolved in politics.


7:35 a.m. ET on October 1, 2021

He quickly assembled a team of about three dozen people, led by elite military personnel from Portugal’s Army, Air Force, and Navy, including mathematicians, doctors, analysts, and strategic experts.

When asked what other countries could do to help their own vaccination efforts, he didn’t hesitate to give his best advice.

“They need to find people who aren’t politicians,” he explained.

Portugal was fortunate to have a robust national vaccination program prior to the pandemic. It arose from the country’s harrowing experience with polio, which was still wreaking havoc on the country when Admiral Gouveia e Melo was born in 1960. He recalls the suffering that ensued when the daughter of a family friend became ill with the disease.

According to Manuela Ivone da Cunha, a Portuguese anthropologist who has researched anti-vaccination movements, “vaccine doubters and anti-vaxxers are in the minority in Portugal, and they are also less vocal” than in many other countries.

Former Portuguese health minister Leonor Beleza, now president of the Champalimaud medical foundation, said Portugal’s rollout clearly benefited from the discipline brought about by the nomination of a military officer.

“He developed a communications policy about what was going on that provided credibility and trust,” she explained.

The task force used troops to instill trust in the system as they devised the most efficient system for safely moving the most people through inoculation centers. As soldier after soldier received shots, it was clear that the vaccines were safe.

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In Portugal, There Is Virtually No One Left to Vaccinate