Portugal extends its virus lockdown as firefighters get jabs

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A doctor performs an ultrasound scan on a patient in a COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at the Curry Cabral hospital in Lisbon, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. A January surge of cases in Portugal has ebbed amid a lockdown, but deaths and pressure on hospitals remain high. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

LISBON – Portugal’s parliament voted Thursday to extend a state of emergency through March 1, allowing the government to keep the current national lockdown in place for the rest of this month.

Internal Affairs Minister Eduardo Cabrita said the restrictive measures were paying dividends, and urged lawmakers to show “nerves of steel” by keeping the limits in place despite complaints from the public and businesses.

The seven-day average of daily deaths in Portugal is the highest in the world, at 2.05 per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University.

But the seven-day average of daily new cases has fallen from a peak of 122.37 new cases per 100,000 people on Jan. 27 to 47.56 per 100,000 people.

Also Thursday, Portugal started inoculating firefighters against COVID-19, as the January surge of cases ebbed but deaths and pressure on hospitals remained high.

Portuguese firefighters, who number about 15,000, commonly operate ambulances, and they are to be vaccinated over a two-week period. Authorities are due to begin inoculating more than 40,000 police officers in coming days.

The national vaccine plan was launched last month with the inoculation of health workers, and staff and residents of care homes for the elderly.

Health Minister Marta Temido acknowledged Thursday there had been some “stumbles” in the country's vaccine rollout, which authorities largely blame on the late delivery of doses. Temido said the goal is still to give 70% of the population -- around 7 million people -- a jab by the end of September.

The pandemic pressure continued to ease slowly Thursday, with the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital and in intensive care falling for the third straight day, The health ministry reported the fewest hospitalizations since Jan. 20 and the fewest patients in ICUs for almost two weeks.

The Health Ministry says antigen tests are to be more widely used at schools, factories and other places where people gather as part of a new strategy to contain the pandemic.

Supporting the lockdown extension, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in a letter to lawmakers that “the country’s hospital capacity is still being put to the test, even with the help of the whole public health system, the armed forces and the private sector.”

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