The director-general of Health, Graça Freitas, admitted that Portugal may face a new wave of the pandemic in the coming months, even with the current vaccination campaign in progress.
“A new escalation of the virus is on the table, even with the vaccine,” acknowledged Graça Freitas , in an interview with RTP3, underlining: “The virus undergoes mutations. We are not free of this, despite the vaccine. And we do not know how long immunity will last, whether it will protect against new variants or how natural immunity will work”.
Asked about the evaluation criteria that should guide the definition of the de-confinement plan, Graça Freitas highlighted the diversity of methodologies adopted between countries and stressed that there is no single “recipe” by which everyone can copy. However, he did not fail to point out the primacy of four criteria.
“The four indicators that are being considered more – and that do not exclude others – are: cumulative incidence over 14 days, positivity rate, bed occupancy in intensive care units and the Rt [transferability index]”, she stressed. At this level, she stressed that Portugal has a “low” Rt and “a positivity rate below 4%”, but recalled the worrying situation in hospitalizations and confessed that it is still necessary to “lower the incidence a little”.
“We have to consolidate all these values and still hope that some of them will improve. We would like the incidence to drop further to make us more comfortable. We need to be cautious. These unevennesses in other countries are also being phased out,” he noted.
Among the biggest concerns of confinement is the closure of schools and the consequences that this situation can have on students, with Graça Freitas stressing that “caution would advise it to be a phased opening, starting with the degrees of education with younger students”, although he pointed out that it is not a decision of his responsibility.
The DGS official assured that the start of testing in schools is foreseen with the resumption of teaching activities and that the screenings can be extended depending on what is found, but she left a message to the specialists who defend massive testing as the solution to the problem, combating the pandemic: “Tests are not treatments or vaccines”.
Regarding vaccination, Graça Freitas acknowledged that “the first quarter will fall short of expectations”, due to the lack of availability of vaccines, but showed hope in meeting the goal of 70% of the country’s vaccinated population by the end of August. As for a possible extension of the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 65, the director-general of Health does not exclude the review that is already advancing in some countries.
“As we get more information from other countries, we don’t rule it out, because it allows older groups to be vaccinated more quickly,” he said.
After reviewing a year of pandemic in the country, which she considered to have been “very intense” and “tragic”, during which she assumed she had had “moments” when she thought about giving up, Graça Freitas regretted the “hoarding numbers” of more of 16 thousand deaths and 800 thousand cases associated with covid-19, in particular the drama experienced in the last month of January, in which Portugal hit maximums of deaths and infections.
“An avalanche happened. Some important factors were added and sometimes the synergy of the factors cannot be predicted. We had a new circular variant, which increases the speed of propagation, we were in the winter and we had extremely cold temperatures, but not there was a forecast with such a dimension. What we would expect was a third wave a little bit larger than the second. The trail it left is devastating “, she concluded.