The Omicron variant is rapidly becoming predominant in Portugal – as it is throughout Europe.
Health minister Marta Temido, flanked by Baltazar Nunes and João Paulo Gomes – two of the regular scientific advisors from INSA (public health institute Ricardo Jorge) – has given a ‘situation report’ this morning, explaining that the variant’s high degree of transmissibility means that by Christmas it could be responsible for 50% of all cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection in Portugal, increasing to 80% by January 31.
As virologist Pedro Simas has stressed, Omicron appears to cause a much milder form of illness. But because it is so infectious, the mere fact that so many people will contract it, means there is the likelihood of high numbers requiring some form of treatment in hospital.
Marta Temido added that it also means there may well end up being more deaths (although there are very few reports of deaths caused by this variant so far).
Right now Omicron is responsible only for around 20% of SARS-CoV-2 infections in Portugal.
Baltazar Nunes admitted that the “effectiveness of the vaccines against infection caused by Omicron is lower (than vaccine effectiveness against infection by Delta – which is already not that high) but it is high against serious disease” and presumably death.
He suggested that “scenarios developed for the impact of the Omicron variant are cloaked in great uncertainty. In other countries there have been a large increase in cases, but not a large expression on the level of increase in hospitalisations… Our great indicator”, he said, “will be incidence in the over-60s” (an age-group that has been almost completely vaccinated).
Contrary to reports yesterday coming out of the Council of Ministers, today’s “situation report” did not enforce new measures on the population. These may come, depending on the outcome of the next few days.
Said Ms Temido: “The coming days will be decisive to understand the impact of the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and of the “proportionate response” applied with measures defined by the government”.
In other words, for the time being restrictions in place stay as they are.
Bottom line advice however is that “we should all be prepared to do more”, said Ms Temido. “More use of the mask, more tests, more vaccination, more control of frontiers…” with renewed efforts to avoid “as much as possible social contacts in crowded spaces”.
The government’s week of contention (from January 2 to 9) “cannot be seen as a compensation (ie another week off school/ attendance in the office) but as a reinforcement of what all of us are being called to do until then”.
In this context, the government is looking into the possibility of offering citizens more than the four free tests per month.
The DGS meantime has reinforced its advice to populations for the festive period, which this year is exactly the same as it was last: people should try and keep celebrations ‘small’ (restricted to members of the family bubble), keep indoor spaces well-aired and wear masks when not eating or drinking.