The Washington Post
Democracy Dies in Darkness
Portugal has nearly run out of people to vaccinate. What comes next?
By Chico Harlan and Mia Alberti
September 30, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
LISBON — Portugal’s vaccination campaign is almost over now, and it has exceeded even the wildest goals. Nearly an entire nation trusted in the science, officials say. At mass immunization centers, just the last trickle of teenagers is passing through. Some 85 percent of Portugal’s population is fully vaccinated — aside from tiny Gibraltar, the highest rate in the world.
“We have actually run out of adults to give shots to,” said Lurdes Costa e Silva, the chief nurse at a Lisbon vaccine center that is already half-shuttered.
Portugal’s feat has turned the country into a cutting-edge pandemic laboratory — a place where otherwise-hypothetical questions about the coronavirus endgame can begin to play out. Chief among them is how fully a nation can bring the virus under control when vaccination rates are about as high as they can go.
The emerging answer is promising — mostly. In Portugal, every indicator of pandemic severity is quickly trending downward. The death rate is half the European Union average and nine times below that of the United States.
Lisbon is triumphant: a city of live music and partying, where early-risers might find sidewalks still sticky with beer. Traffic is back to normal as people settle into the rhythms of commuting to work. And the celebrity of the moment — on glossy magazine covers — is the former submarine commander who led the country’s vaccination drive.
“We have achieved a good result, but it’s not the solution or miracle one would think,” Portugal’s health minister, Marta Temido, said in an interview. Some precautions will remain. Mask-wearing indoors will still be mandatory in some indoor situations. Digital health certificates will continue to be necessary for travel and events with crowds.
Perhaps the most telling sign of Portugal’s lingering unease is this: Many health officials are still worried about the vulnerability of the elderly to the ravages of the virus. In Portugal, seniors are vaccinated at a level verging on the statistically impossible: Official data puts the rate at 100 percent.
Across Lisbon, in a windy hilltop military facility, Portugal’s much-admired vaccine czar was worried about something else entirely. To Henrique Gouveia e Melo, most of the information arriving about the elderly was overwhelmingly reassuring. Even six months in, they weren’t filling hospital beds. Case levels among seniors were falling still.
The naval vice admiral had spent much of his career measuring risks, and he felt the biggest risk for Portugal required a bigger-picture view.
On one of the three computer screens at his desk, he pulled up a chart showing vaccination levels, country by country. The rates in many Western countries were decent to good, still rising slowly. But then he stopped on two former Portuguese colonies, Angola and Mozambique. In both places, like in many African nations, vaccination rates remain in the single digits — potentially giving breathing room to rampant infections and new variants capable of evading vaccines and racing around the world.
He thought Portugal’s best next move would be to focus on helping others — not just for “moral” reasons, but for its own safety. To him, the domestic mission was over — and his task force, was no longer needed. Portugal had earned an opportunity to help elsewhere.
“You cannot win just by vaccinating everyone in your own country,” he said. “The war ends after we give shots to everyone in the world.”