Portugal’s health care system was on the verge of collapse. Hospitals in the capital, Lisbon, were overflowing and authorities were asking people to treat themselves at home. In the last week of January, nearly 2,000 people died as the virus spread.
The country’s vaccine program was in a shambles, so the government turned to Vice Adm. Henrique Gouveia e Melo, a former submarine squadron commander, to right the ship.
Eight months later, Portugal is among the world’s leaders in vaccinations, with roughly 86% of its population of 10.3 million fully vaccinated. About 98% of all of those eligible for vaccines — meaning anyone over 12 — have been fully vaccinated, Gouveia e Melo said.
“We believe we have reached the point of group protection and nearly herd immunity,” he said. “Things look very good.”
On Friday, Portugal ended nearly all of its coronavirus restrictions. There has been a sharp drop in new cases, to about 650 a day, and vanishingly few deaths.
Many Western nations fortunate enough to have abundant vaccine supplies have seen inoculation rates plateau, with more than 20% of their populations still unprotected. So other governments are looking to Portugal for possible insights and are watching closely to see what happens when nearly every eligible person is protected.
False dawns in the coronavirus pandemic have been as common as new nightmare waves of infection. So Portugal could still see a setback as the delta variant continues to spread globally.
There have been worrying signs from Israel and elsewhere that protection offered by vaccines can fade over time, and a worldwide debate is raging over who should be offered booster shots and when.
Portugal may soon start offering boosters to older people and those deemed clinically vulnerable, Gouveia e Melo said, and he was confident they could all be reached by the end of December.
But for the moment, as bars and nightclubs buzz with life, infections dwindle and deaths plummet, the country’s vaccination drive has succeeded even after encountering many of the same hurdles that caused others to flounder.