In line with various other European countries, Portugal looks like it will be slowly taking its foot off the pedal when it comes to the imposition of everyday restrictions in the name of limiting the pandemic.
Omicron, and its much more benign nature, has seen the government’s panel of experts give their opinions this week on where the country is going.
In terms of infections and numbers in hospitals, there is still quite some way to go. But the bottom line is that it’s ‘do-able’. Thanks to the results of an exceptional vaccination campaign – and numbers coming forwards to claim their boosters – the population appears to be well-positioned to ride out this latest phase without any need for further limits on freedoms.
Indeed, the overriding message was that freedoms should gradually be restored.
Taking the advice and opinions given on Wednesday from the top, the government heard that:
● Current incidence has reached 2,007 cases per 100,000 – more than 131% than numbers of the previous week – as Omicron has become responsible for 90% of all infections.
● Incidence is rising in all age-groups (particularly those aged 20-29).
● Citizens have responded en-masse to the call to be tested, seeing around 1.7 million tests in the last week, with a positivity rate of 10.4% (way in excess of the previous ‘stipulated red line’ of 4%).
● Hospital admissions are increasing, notwithstanding the milder nature of Omicron, simply because of the huge numbers becoming infected – but numbers in intensive care are only at 58% of capacity (i.e., manageable).
● The risk of being admitted to hospital for people over the age of 50 who have been vaccinated is two to five times less than it is for those who have not been vaccinated.
● Mortality as a result of Omicron is “moderate” and “very much lower” than it has been during other stages of the pandemic.
● The risk of death in people over the age of 60 who have been vaccinated ‘completely’ (i.e., received their booster shots) is three to five times less than it is for people who have not been vaccinated. In the over-80s age group, 26.8 in every 100 cases end in death; with vaccination, this number reduces to 8.6 and with the booster shot the number goes down to just 5.
● Current vaccines lose their effectiveness against Omicron, when compared with effectiveness, for example, against the Delta variant. If someone has only had two doses of the current vaccines, protection drops to between 52% to 72%, “depending on the time that has passed since inoculation”. A booster shot, however, will bring immunity back to 88%.
● 20% of people who have been infected naturally by the virus and recovered may well have lost their immunity by now.
● 4%-12% of the country could be in isolation by the end of January, due to the continuing spread of Omicron: between 1,300 and 3,700 could be in hospital, and between 184-453 in intensive care.
● Outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 in old people’s homes have been reduced six-fold thanks to the effectiveness of vaccinations.
● 88% of the country is now ‘fully vaccinated’, with a campaign to continue rolling out booster shots and inoculating children still running.
● Current objectives are to roll-out booster shots in another five million citizens (aged from 50-20) over the next two and a half months, with boosters potentially then being given to the under-20s and children in March.
In the words of mathematician Henrique Barros – a specialist whose forecasts have been considered throughout the last almost two years of public health crisis – “there is no reason to continue basing decisions in terms of the number of cases” as there is a “clear disassociation between the number of cases and their gravity”.
“The next variant will probably be even less serious in terms of the illness it provokes and will tend to spread much more easily.”
He stressed the vaccines “have changed our lives”. Today, thanks to advances in the study of the virus and development of medications, “it is possible to control infection”.
Summing the meeting up, after a period of discussion that was not open to the public, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said: “Taking Sweden out of the equation, it was recognised that Portugal is the most open society in Europe in terms of economic, social and scholastic functioning.
“It was also recognised that we are testing at levels five times higher than happened a year ago,” which shows, he believes, the capacity for self-management and control of the population.
“All the experts attested to the fact that the significant increase in contagions and cases have not corresponded to a significant impact in hospital admissions, admissions to intensive care or deaths.
“The explanation given by specialists is simple: this variant (Omicron) attacks the airways but does not attack the lungs in the same way.”
Thus, the consensus that there is no need for the government to increase restrictions following Thursday’s Council of Ministers.
Portugal’s post-Christmas ‘period of containment’ seems poised to come to an end on Monday, January 10, with schools returning, and the imposition of remote working possibly also due to be lifted.
In the intervening period, thousands of teachers will be filing into vaccination centres to receive their booster shots. The ‘boosting of teachers’ will be taking place during the afternoons of January 6-9, the mornings of which are open to parents to bring their primary school-age children.
Of the 643,000 children between the ages of 5-12, 96,000 have already started the vaccination process and 103,000 have been scheduled for shots between January 6-9.
It is precisely because of this ‘reduced adhesion’ by parents that authorities have the ‘space’ to roll-out boosters for teachers whose union had been pushing for a further delay in the start of the school year, in order to see older members of staff ‘better protected’ with third shots.
By NATASHA DONN