In Portugal, there is virtually no one left to vaccinate

Portugal’s healthcare system was running about to collapse. Hospitals were in the capital Lisbon overflowing The authorities were asking people to treat themselves at home. In the last week of January, nearly 2,000 people died with delta-variable spread.

The country’s vaccine program was in disarray, so the government turned to Vice Admiral Henrique Gouvia e Mello, a former submarine squadron commander, to straighten the ship.

Eight months later, Portugal became among world leaders In vaccinations, nearly 86 percent of its population of 10.3 million has been fully vaccinated. Admiral Juvia e Mello said about 98 percent of all those eligible for vaccinations — anyone over the age of 12 — have been fully vaccinated.

“We think we’ve reached the point of protecting the group and approximating herd immunity,” he said. “Things look very good.”

On Friday, Portugal ended nearly all of its coronavirus-related restrictions. There has been a sharp drop in new cases, to about 650 per day, and Few deaths fade away.

Many Western countries lucky enough to have ample supplies of vaccines have seen Vaccination rates A plateau, with more than 20 percent of its population still unprotected. So other governments are looking to Portugal for potential insights and watching closely to see what happens when nearly everyone who is eligible is protected.

The false dawn of the coronavirus pandemic has been as common as new nightmare waves of infection. So Portugal could still experience a setback.

There have been worrying signs from Israel and elsewhere that the protection offered by vaccines could wear off over time, and debate rages around the world over who should be given the booster injections and when.

Admiral Gouvia e Melo said Portugal may soon begin providing boosters to the elderly and those deemed clinically at risk, and expressed confidence that they could all be reached by the end of December.

But for now, with bars and nightclubs bustling with life, infections waning and deaths waning, the country’s vaccination campaign has succeeded even after many are faced with the same thing. Obstacles that cause others to flounder.

The same Flood of misinformation About vaccinations I filled the social media accounts of the Portuguese. The country is run by a minority left-wing governmentreflecting its political divisions. And according to public opinion polls, there was widespread skepticism about vaccines when they first arrived.

Admiral Juvia e Melo had the credit for his heart. With a background working on complex logistical challenges in the Army, he was appointed in February to lead the National Vaccination Squad.

Standing 6 feet 3 inches tall, the admiral has made him wear only his combat uniform in many of his public and television appearances as he primarily sought to enlist the nation into a single collective force to fight epidemics.

“The first thing is to make this thing a war,” Admiral Juvia E. Melo said in an interview, recalling how he handled the job. I use not only the language of war, but the language of the military.

And while politicians around the world have invoked similar military rhetoric, he said it was so important to its success that it was widely seen as out of politics.

He soon assembled a team of about thirty people, led by elite military personnel – including mathematicians, doctors, analysts and strategists from the Portuguese army, air force and navy.

When asked what other states could do to boost their vaccination efforts, he didn’t hesitate to offer his best advice.

“They need to find people who are not politicians,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Portugal was lucky Strong national vaccination program. It grew out of the country’s devastating experience fighting polio, which was still affecting the country after the birth of Admiral Juvia E. Mello in 1960. He remembers when the daughter of a family friend fell ill from the disease and the suffering that followed.

Manuela Evoni da Cunha, a Portuguese anthropologist who has studied anti-vaccination movements, said that “vaccine skeptics and anti-vaccination advocates are in the minority in Portugal, and they are also less vocal” than they are in many other countries.

Leonor Belleza, a former Portuguese health minister who is now president of the Champalimaud Medical Foundation, said Portugal’s launch clearly benefited from the discipline brought about by the nomination of a military officer.

“He formulated a communications policy about what was happening that gave credibility and trust,” she said.

As the task force devised the most efficient system for the most people to safely flow through vaccination centers, they used the forces to build trust in the system. People could see that the vaccines were safe because the soldier after the soldier was shot.

At the same time, the task force made sure to show doctors and nurses getting their doses, too, to get the vaccine safety message home.

While other countries have provided doctors, nurses, police officers and soldiers in their vaccination campaigns, Rear Admiral Juvia E. Mello said consistency of messages was critical.

However, as the campaign moved to younger age groups over the summer – with less than half of the public vaccinated – there were signs that resistance was increasing.

In a submarine, said the admiral, you are in a slow ship trying to catch faster ships.

“You have to put yourself in a position and be smart about how you do it, and seize the opportunity when it arrives,” he said.

In July, Admiral Gouveia e Melo seized this opportunity.

The protesters were blocking the entrance to the vaccination center in Lisbon, so he put on his combat uniform and drove there without any security escort.

“I’ve been through these lunatics,” he said. “They started calling me a killer, a killer.”

As the television cameras rolled in, the admiral stood quietly on the ground.

“I said the killer was the virus,” recalls Admiral Juvia E. Melo. He said the real killer would be people who live like the thirteenth century without any idea of ​​reality.

“I tried to communicate in a very real and honest way about all the doubts and issues,” he said.

But not everyone welcomed his approach.

“We don’t really have a culture of questioning the authorities,” said Laura Sanchez, a clinical psychologist who has criticized the launch of mass vaccination in Portugal as too militaristic and called for the exclusion of young people.

“And the way he always presented himself in camouflaged military uniforms – as if he was fighting a war – along with the language used by the media and politicians, contributed to the feeling of fear that also makes us more susceptible to obedience and unquestioning,” she said.

However, the public messaging campaign – including the violent television and media campaign – has made steady progress.

“At first, we had about 40 percent who were unsure,” Admiral Juvia E. Melo said. Now, according to polls, only 2.2 percent said they don’t want a vaccine.

With his stepping down from the task force this week, the admiral said he feels the country is on a good track. But never the submarine warned that vigilance would still be necessary to ensure victory in this war.

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