Portugal sees rise in COVID-19 cases, vaccine rollout speeds up

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People are seen in a shopping mall in Sintra on the first day of the opening of malls after a country lockdown, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Sintra, Portugal, April 19, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

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LISBON, June 23 (Reuters) - Coronavirus cases in Portugal rose by 1,497 on Wednesday, the biggest jump since February 20, official data showed, as authorities speed up vaccination of younger people to tackle a worrying rise in infections.

The new cases brought the total number of infections in Portugal, which faced a tough battle against the coronavirus in January that left the health system on the verge of collapsing, to 868,323. Most new cases are concentrated in the Lisbon area.

A total of 17,077 people have died.

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The number of people testing newly positive every 24 hours in Portugal, a country of just over 10 million people, is back to late February levels, when it was still under a nationwide lockdown.

Most restrictions have since been lifted and non-essential businesses have reopened but government ministers are meeting on Thursday to decide if new measures are needed to bring the situation under control, particularly in Lisbon.

The jump in infections comes around a month after tourism-dependent Portugal opened to visitors from the European Union and Britain. More than 60% of cases in Lisbon are of the more infectious Delta coronavirus variant, first identified in India but rapidly spreading in Britain.

India said on Wednesday it has found cases of the Delta variant carrying a mutation that appears to make it even more transmissible. There are 24 cases of the so-called "Delta Plus" variant in Portugal, according to Health Minister Marta Temido.

To tackle the surge, Portugal is speeding up the vaccination of younger people as most of the around of the 29% of the population who have been fully vaccinated are older or more vulnerable.

The vaccine task force coordinator said on Wednesday that all those aged 18 or over can book their vaccination appointments from July 4. People aged 37 or over are now able to schedule their appointments.

"Vaccines are effective, they are safe, but they are not a miracle," Temido said. "It's not worth saying we know everything, it's not worth promising what we can't promise. We have to be careful."

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Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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