Portugal Closing in on COVID Vaccines for 85 Percent of Population, Highest Rate in World

Portugal is fast closing in on its goal of fully vaccinating 85 percent of its population against COVID-19 in nine months, the Associated Press reported.

According to Our World in Data, Portugal has 84 percent of its population fully vaccinated as of Wednesday—the highest in the world—and it could be just days away from reaching the target goal.

Claudia Boigues, 53, said she was amazed by Portugal's swift vaccine rollout and its ability to reach the highest amount in the world.

"I never thought we'd reach 85 percent," she said. "But now we deserve congratulations."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

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Portugal is fast approaching its goal of 85 percent of its population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Above, mask-clad locals and tourists crowd the Cais do Sodre train station on September 22, 2021, in Lisbon. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

A lot of the credit is going to Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo. With his team from the three branches of the armed forces, the naval officer took charge of the vaccine rollout in February—perhaps the moment of greatest tension in Portugal over the pandemic.

Previously unheralded outside the military, Gouveia e Melo is now a household name in Portugal, having made a point of going on television regularly to answer public concerns about the vaccination program.

"People are very nice," he said. But the 60-year-old officer also is quick to insist he is just "the tip of the iceberg" in the operation and that many others share the credit.

Military involvement in rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine is not uncommon elsewhere, but Portugal has given it the leading role.

It turned out to be an inspired choice: Although Gouveia e Melo's team works hand-in-hand with health authorities, police and town councils, the military's expertise has proven invaluable.

"People in the military are used to working under stress in uncertain environments," he said at his office in a NATO building near Lisbon that commands a view of the Atlantic. "They're organized, have a good logistics set-up...and are usually very focused on the mission."

Gouveia e Melo set the tone of the rollout with his no-nonsense approach and emphasis on discipline. His straight-talking style endeared him to many who worried they might not get vaccinated in time.

In an interview with AP, he admitted that replacing a political appointee who quit after only three months was "intimidating."

At the time, Portugal was in the worst phase of the pandemic, when it was among the hardest-hit countries with public hospitals near collapse. Promised vaccine deliveries weren't arriving. And jockeying for shots was threatening to undermine public trust in the rollout.

"I felt like I had the eyes of 10 million people on me," Gouveia e Melo said, referring to Portugal's population.

His 42-year military career helps explain how he handled the pressure.

He was a submarine commander, and at one point was in charge of two of the vessels at the same time—returning to base with one, eating a meal on shore and then taking another out to sea.

Gouveia e Melo also captained a frigate, led Euromarfor, the European Union's Maritime Force, and has logged the most hours at sea of any serving Portuguese naval officer.

He is unapologetic about couching the vaccine rollout as a battle and has worn combat fatigues ever since taking over the effort. He said he wanted to send a message that it was a call to arms.

"This uniform...was symbolic for people to comprehend the need to roll up our sleeves and fight this virus," he said.

Gouveia e Melo did away with Portugal's initial efforts to piggyback on established vaccination strategies, such as those used annually for flu shots in usually small, public health centers. The demands of scale and speed to address COVID-19 required a very different approach.

Portugal began using large sports facilities around the country to set up what Gouveia e Melo called a "production line": a reception and processing area; a waiting room; cubicles where injections are given; and a recovery area. He used soldiers as guinea pigs at the Lisbon military hospital to figure out the fastest flow of people through a building.

A major push came with what he described as a "tsunami" of vaccine deliveries in mid-June, which allowed a shift into a higher gear.

Tiago Correia, an associate professor in international public health at Lisbon's New University Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reckons that the public view of Gouveia e Melo as the principal factor in the successful rollout is an "exaggeration" of his role.

A key factor, Correia said, is the traditional consenting attitude in Portugal toward national vaccination programs. Its vaccination rate for measles, mumps and rubella, for example, is 95 percent—one of the EU's highest—and there is no significant anti-vaccination movement.

Even so, Gouveia e Melo's military background meant he was able to "cut through all the politics" and ensure public trust in the rollout, Correia told AP.

Other countries, which Gouveia e Melo declined to identify because their requests have not been made public, have asked Portugal about its effort.

Gouveia e Melo will soon be able to say "mission accomplished" for his immediate goal. But with significant vaccination hesitancy in some wealthier countries and many poorer countries without sufficient doses, he's under no illusion that virus variants could come back to torment Portugal.

"We've won a battle," he said. "I don't know if we've won the war against the virus. This is a world war."

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As Portugal nears its goal of fully vaccinating 85 percent of its population against COVID-19 in nine months, other countries want to know how it was able to accomplish the feat. Above, Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo shares a joke with a military nurse during a visit to a vaccination center in Lisbon on September 21, 2021. Armando Franca/AP Photo