Portugal registers yet another day of maximums as government prepares to maintain restrictions till spring

Portugal has registered yet another day of pandemic ‘maximums’: more deaths than ever before (166 in the last 24 hours), more new cases than ever before (10,947) and more people in intensive care units than ever before (current total 638).

The situation has rapidly become one proving all ‘worst case scenario’ predictions. 

President Marcelo was heard on Friday suggesting restrictions ‘could be over by Carnival’. This may have been a electioneering tactic (there is, after all, a presidential ‘race’ underway). Expresso – ‘in touch with sources within the government’  – reckons restrictions will be in force, one way or the other, until at least the spring.

The weekly’s front page lays it out starkly: “as many people will die in the next two months as have in the last 10”; “case numbers won’t drop below 10,000 before February; “release from lockdown will be slow and gradual”; “protection of the elderly has failed”.

The number of people currently deemed to have been ‘infected with the virus’ has reached 128,165. This has to be taken on the basis that the crushing majority recover on their own at home without major consequences. In the last 24-hours, for example, another 8,477 people have been given ‘a clean bill of health’, and released from isolation (click here).

None of this however affects the massive pressure on regional hospitals. Reports describe queues of ambulances waiting for those inside to be able to be admitted. At least one person has died waiting.

It is not just ‘the worst day so far in the pandemic’ for Portugal, it’s a moment when bad news is being overtaken by more bad news and the ‘glimmer of hope’ provided by the arrival of the vaccines has somehow been temporarily extinguished.

The country has already managed to give at least 106,000 people their first shots, but the programme is a long way from effecting any improvement on the situation.

Mathematician Carlos Antunes is one of a team of experts calculating where Portugal’s numbers are headed.

He told Expresso just before the country’s second lockdown came into place on Friday: “The measures will only be felt within the next five to seven days. If the deceleration in the number of cases has a similar speed to that registered in March (the time of the first lockdown) we could be seeing 14,000 daily contagions in the next two weeks. We will very probably still be above 10,000 when we complete a month in lockdown”.

Prime minister António Costa – the man who said Portugal ‘couldn’t support another lockdown’ – has suggested this latest period of confinement won’t last more than a month. This now is looking a tad too optimistic.

At the Infarmed meeting last Tuesday – where the government ‘heard the opinion of experts’ – epidemiologist Manuel Carmo Gomes ‘estimated’ that it will take two months “for the country to return to the level the country was at before Christmas”. He wasn’t alone in his opinion.

The feeling at the meeting was that testing has to be increased (it is currently running at around 47,000 tests per day, of which around 17.8% prove positive).

Testing however cannot help those who have already incubated the virus – and despite the focus being on ‘protecting the elderly’, it hasn’t worked, says Expresso. Old people’s homes everywhere have been affected.

In the 14 days in the run-up to Expresso’s article, 1,200 new infections were being flagged in every 100,000 inhabitants over the age of 80. 

The only age group with a higher count was 20-29 year olds (1,300 new infections per 100.000).

In the first 11 days of 2021, 6,457 people over the age of 80 were infected with SARS-CoV-2.

“With a lethality rate in this age-group of around 13%, it is easy to see the thousands of deaths that will still happen”, says the paper.

Said Carlos Antunes: “It’s almost certain that by March 14 – when we will have completed a year since the first Covid death (in Portugal) – we will have accumulated more than 16,000 deaths. It could even go over 17,000. This means that in the next two months, with a high probability, as many or even more deaths will occur than already have in the last ten”.

According to Milton Severo of the Institute of Public Health at Porto University, deaths occur roughly 20 days after infection. This highlights the problem facing authorities ‘here and now’: the fatalities today are people who were infected two to three weeks ago.“With the incidence (of infections) still rising, expectations are that throughout the month of January and into the start of February there will be periods in which the number of deaths continues to be alarming”, says Expresso.

In fact Carlos Antunes believes recent numbers call for an ‘upwards adjustment’ in the model being used to make calculations. He’s suggesting as many as 180 deaths a day in a month’s time.

With authorities desperately trying to get a lid on the spread of infections (old people’s homes for example are now testing staff ‘regularly’ – although this only translates into once a month), Portugal has become the country with the 4th highest death-count per million inhabitants in Europe.

Pre-Christmas, the country had been  ‘holding its own’ against the European average of 6.8-7.1 deaths per million, says Expresso. 

By January 13 everything had changed. Portugal was averaging 12.03 deaths per million, against the EU’s average at that point of 7.7.

The only countries with a higher death toll per million inhabitants are the Czech Republic (16.3), Lithuania (14.6) and Slovakia (13.2). 

Sweden (with a similar population size as Portugal’s) is showing the same numbers as Portugal, says Expresso – not making reference to Sweden’s very different approach to the pandemic in the early days.

But all this suggests one month of confinement – no matter what the politicians may have assured – simply won’t be enough.

“Everything will re-evaluated bit by bit”, suggests Expresso in an article entitled “tension until spring” – with everything riding on a successful roll-out of the vaccination programme so that the elderly in Portugal can finally feel they are properly protected.

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