Covid-19 boosters, mass testing and teleworking: Specialists suggest measures to tackle pandemic’s fifth wave in Portugal

Increasing the pace of Portugal’s Covid-19 booster vaccine roll-out, carrying out mass testing and bringing back teleworking when possible are some of the main measures proposed by specialists at a key meeting at Infarmed’s headquarters in Lisbon this afternoon.

Seven specialists addressed top government officials such as Prime Minister António Costa as well as the President of the Republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and painted a picture of the last months of epidemiological development in Portugal.

The measures were pitched by Raquel Duarte from the Institute of Public Health of the University of Porto, who called for a quicker roll-out of booster shots, mass testing, universal and free access to the vaccination certificate, a close monitoring of the variants circulating amongst the population, strict border control and the usual mask-wearing, social distancing and ventilation of indoor areas.

Teleworking or employees working different shifts in the office are among the other measures proposed.

The role of Covid-19 vaccines in the decrease of serious illness and deaths was one of the main issues addressed this afternoon.

Henrique Barros from the Institute of Public Health of the University of Porto said that vaccines have prevented “23,000 deaths” and “200,000 cases of infection” since May.

“We are in a much better situation now than we were a year ago,” Barros pointed out, stressing how pandemic numbers are down across the board, with fewer deaths, fewer people requiring hospital care or even becoming infected.

He also called for the vaccination of children aged below 12 once the “vaccines are unequivocally approved”, as the incidence rate now is at its highest in the 0-9 age group.

Baltazar Nunes from the Doutor Ricardo Jorge Health Institute echoed the data that the epidemiological situation is “much less severe now than last year”, although he warned that if case numbers continue to grow, Portugal could surpass the 240 cases per 100,000 inhabitants mark in two weeks.

Portugal is now at around 190 cases, while last year there were around 700 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, he explained.

Despite the role of vaccines in keeping the pandemic under control, specialists also admitted that the first jabs administered earlier this year are starting to “lose their effectiveness” – which is why they believe boosters are so important, especially among the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

Data from the Doutor Ricardo Jorge Health Institute, presented by specialist Ausenda Machado, shows that vaccines are 53% effective in avoiding infection and 80% effective in preventing deaths and hospitalisations.

Vaccines seem to be especially effective among younger people, data shows, with effectiveness dropping to 47% for people aged 80 or older after 149 days.

While there is unquestionable scepticism surrounding the proposed booster shots, Colonel Carlos Penha-Gonçalves from the country’s vaccination coordination group says that 80% of those eligible are getting their jabs. Around 630,000 people have already received their third jab, he added.

Penha-Gonçalves said that the strategy going forward will be to “vaccinate the vulnerable first”.

The government’s communication skills during the pandemic were also scrutinised.

Margarida Gaspar de Matos from the task force of “behavioural sciences applied to the context of Covid-19” also called on the government to “simplify” its communication strategy regarding the pandemic, and questioned whether “reforço” (literal translation being ‘reinforcement’) is the best word to described the booster shot.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa described the meeting as “so enlightening that there were even fewer questions than usual”.

When asked whether he believed the suggested measures were enough to tackle rising case numbers, Marcelo made it clear the “decision is in the hands of the government”.

PM António Costa is now due to speak with other political parties and discuss the suggestions made by the specialists. An announcement of the measures is expected soon.