Portugal vaccine rollout gets new chief after unsteady start

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A priest says a few words during a brief ceremony outdoors before the cremation of a COVID-19 victim at a cemetery in Alcabideche, outside Lisbon, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. Portugal is facing a pandemic surge that has made it the world’s worst-hit country by size of population. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — The new head of Portugal’s COVID-19 vaccination task force was due to start work Thursday, a day after his predecessor resigned amid scandals over vaccine queue-jumping and frustration over a sluggish rollout similar to that seen in other European Union countries.

At the current rate of vaccination of just over 10,000 doses a day on average, Portugal will reach its target of 70% of vaccinated adults only in 2023. Its goal was to reach that milestone in late summer this year by inoculating around 50,000 people a day.

Portuguese officials note that they have received fewer vaccines than promised from manufacturers and say EU authorization of more vaccines will help accelerate the program.

The European Center for Disease Control, an EU agency, said in weekly data published Thursday that Portugal has received almost 387,000 vaccine doses. The country of 10.3 million people has administered 310,000, or around 80% — the seventh-highest rate among the EU’s 27 member countries, it said.

A pandemic surge in January thrust Portugal into the spotlight as world’s worst-hit country by size of population, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and the vaccine program has inspired hope amid an extended lockdown.

Rear Adm. Henrique Gouveia e Melo, who was already head of the vaccine task force as part of its military support, said that as its new chief he had a long to-do list. But he noted that the European Commission is leading the bloc’s vaccine purchase program.

“The problem is not in the vaccination process itself,” he told reporters late Wednesday. “It’s in the vaccines arriving here, and that’s a process at a pan-European level, so Portugal can’t do much more.”

He said he intended to tighten controls on who gets the vaccine after some people allegedly took them out of turn, including family members of public officials and health workers.

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