By Catarina Demony and Sergio Goncalves
LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s health minister on Wednesday predicted the Omicron variant would trigger a record number of infections in the coming days as authorities reported nearly 9,000 new cases, the highest since early February and up from 5,754 the previous day.
Although the country has one of the world’s highest rates of COVID-19 vaccination with around 87% of its 10 million population fully inoculated, daily infections have returned to levels last seen when Portugal faced its worst wave of the illness in the first two months of the year.
“We will most likely reach an (all-time) record number of cases in the coming days,” Health Minister Marta Temido said in an interview with TVI television.
Portugal reported a record 16,432 cases in late January when the public system was on the verge of collapse.
Deaths and hospitalisations are far below levels then suffered. There are 909 people with COVID-19 in hospital compared to a peak of 6,869 patients on Feb. 1.
The 14-day infection rate has more than doubled in the last month to reach 579 per 100,000 people on Wednesday, official data showed. About half of the new coronavirus cases in Portugal are from the Omicron variant.
To limit the spread in the run-up to the holiday season, the government announced new curbs on Tuesday, ordering nightclubs and bars to shut and telling people to work from home for at least two weeks starting on Christmas Day.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa has urged people to limit their contacts as much as possible.
Portugal has increased coronavirus testing to reach an average of 133,000 tests per day but, as holiday celebrations approach and demand grows, some supermarkets are running out of kits and few pharmacies have slots available.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Sérgio Gonçalves; Additional reporting by Patrícia Vicente Rua; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Barbara Lewis)