Marta Temido, Minister of Health and one of the best-known figures in Portugal’s fight against the coronavirus, this week stood outside a besieged hospital near Lisbon and made a passionate appeal.
“We are mobilizing all the health resources at our disposal,” she said. “But there is a limit, and people should know that we are very close to that limit.”
His call for the country to abide by the rules of a second national lockdown came as a record number of new cases and hospitalizations threatened to overwhelm a national health service struggling to find more beds and more staff.
After infection rates started to skyrocket in early January, Portugal this week became the country with the highest seven-day average of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 population worldwide, according to Johns University Hopkins.
Health services were under “brutal pressure” and doctors suffering “from burnout and moral anguish” from having to make complex and difficult decisions about prioritizing patients, said Miguel Guimarães, chief of the Portuguese Medical Association, a professional body representing doctors, in a statement. Monday.
In March and April, Portugal won international praise for its rapid and effective response to the first wave of the pandemic. But it has since become one of the hardest hit European countries in a second wave that settled in November and reached record levels this year.
António Costa, Prime Minister, warned on Monday that the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths would continue to rise this week. “We are living in the worst hour of the pandemic,” he said, speaking after record levels of deaths in seven of the previous eight days.
While Portugal has suffered fewer total deaths since the start of the pandemic compared to its population of 10.2 million than many other countries – including the UK, US, Spain, l ‘Italy and France – it recorded the third highest seven-day average of Covid-19 Deaths on Monday, behind the UK and the Czech Republic (per 100,000 population). In total, Portugal has recorded 566,958 infections and 9,246 deaths since March.
Ricardo Mexia, epidemiologist and head of an association of public health physicians, attributes the recent surge in cases to a “perfect storm” of conditions, including a failure to sufficiently flatten the growth curve of infections in the fall, respiratory illnesses in winter and a cold snap. Psychological factors also play an important role, he said, as a positive message around Portugal’s Covid-19 vaccination program, which began in late December, has caused people to let their guard down.
Health experts have criticized the government for loosening Christmas lockdowns too much, lifting travel restrictions and allowing families to decide for themselves how many households and people can congregate.
“An increase in cases was inevitable after the holidays and it was not properly planned,” Mexia said.
Doctors and nurses across the country have reported on the pressures they face. “I saw a colleague cry after leaving a Covid neighborhood physically and psychologically exhausted five hours after her shift should have ended,” Ricardo Baptista Leite wrote on social media this week. “When a patient is stabilized, three or four more patients requiring stabilization arrive.” Mr. Baptista Leite, health spokesperson for the opposition Social Democrats, volunteers as a hospital doctor on weekends.
“We have already seen patients being sorted in lines of ambulances waiting outside [overcrowded] hospitals, ”Mexia said. Portugal’s tracking and tracing system to identify chains of infection is also struggling to cope, he said, with thousands of people who should be isolated not being monitored.
“We haven’t yet reached the kind of catastrophic collapse [of the health system] that we have seen in Spain and Italy, but we are close, ”said João Gouveia, a doctor who heads the intensive care association in Portugal. But if infections continued to rise at the current rate for about a week, the health service could experience a similar outage, he said: “The next six or eight weeks will be very difficult.
Under fire from doctors and epidemiologists for not imposing more restrictive measures earlier and not applying them effectively, the government is calling on people to stay at home. “We were able to defeat the virus in an exemplary manner during the first wave. . . and now we have to do it again, ”said Mr. Costa.
Portugal moved from a multi-tier regional containment system on Friday to a full nationwide lockdown intended to reflect the successful restrictions last spring. Mr Costa, however, was forced to tighten measures on Monday after large numbers of people filled the parks and strolled the beaches on weekends. The doctor’s professional body has criticized his government for “half-measures that do not serve the health sector or the economy”.
The government has ruled out the closure of schools or universities, which were closed during the first lockdown. Some epidemiologists claim that this only pushes back their inevitable closure as the pandemic empire. But Mr Costa said interrupting a generation’s education for a second year “cannot be justified in health or social terms.” He told Parliament on Tuesday, however, that the government would consider closing schools if the rapidly spreading variant of the virus first identified in the UK becomes dominant in Portugal.