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Portugal may be the model to follow for how to live safely with the coronavirus

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The new omicron strain of the coronavirus has appeared in several European Union countries, including Portugal, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. The country could become a test case on how vaccines can help people live with COVID. Joanna Kakissis reports from Lisbon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In the weeks since nearly everyone in Portugal got vaccinated, Lisbon has felt like itself again. The cobblestoned old town is packed, the markets are full, and so are the cafes and stages where you can sing along to Portuguese folk music, called fado.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: There are also long lines outside restaurants, including Ramiro, which is famous for its shellfish. Pedro Goncalves is the manager.

PEDRO GONCALVES: I'm back to business again.

KAKISSIS: Back to business again.

GONCALVES: The people are not afraid to come out. The people start living again.

KAKISSIS: You and your staff still wear masks here.

GONCALVES: Yes. It's a rule that we must respect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: This is how the Portuguese live with COVID. Jess Pritchard, a Londoner vacationing in Lisbon, did not expect extra vigilance in a country where more than 87% of the population is vaccinated.

JESS PRITCHARD: I'm not surprised to see masks, but I am surprised that if we go into shops, they're a little bit militant in terms of, like, enforcing it.

KAKISSIS: The Portuguese are also accepting more restrictions going into effect tomorrow. These include requiring negative COVID tests for anyone going to bars, sports events and retirement homes.

VIOLANTE ROCHA: We understand that life is too good to lose.

KAKISSIS: This is Violante Rocha.

ROCHA: And I'm 80 years old. When we have something attacking us, we have to get shields, so I have the vaccine one, the vaccine two and the vaccine three. And I can tell you that yesterday we went to the theater, and we used masks. Everyone had a mask. Life is going on, you know?

KAKISSIS: Rocha believes she is as protected as she can be against the new omicron variant. Scientists agree, including Dr. Maria Manuel Mota of the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon. But Mota adds that early evidence suggests this new strain of coronavirus is highly transmissible.

MARIA MANUEL MOTA: This virus is here to stay, so even if you are vaccinated, you should be careful.

KAKISSIS: This vigilance with the pandemic has come at a price. COVID infected a tenth of Portugal's population and killed thousands until this summer, when the government tapped a high-ranking military officer to reboot its vaccination drive.

HENRIQUE GOUVEIA E MELO: My name is Henrique Gouveia e Melo. I am a vice admiral of the armed forces. I appeared in my combat uniform. And the first things I said on the TV is we are at war, and this is a war against the virus. So in what side you want to be - with the virus 'cause you are crazy and you are helping the virus to spread, or you are in our side, the community, to protect ourselves?

KAKISSIS: I meet the vice admiral in his nautical-themed office. He's tall, gregarious and really into "Star Wars," at least when he's talking about vaccination.

GOUVEIA E MELO: Says, Luke, are you a Jedi, or are you on the dark side of the war? Be a Jedi to protect yourself, your family and also all of us.

KAKISSIS: His team expanded vaccination centers and made them more efficient.

(APPLAUSE)

KAKISSIS: When he visited, those in line applauded. Only one city faced protesters who got in his face as TV cameras rolled.

GOUVEIA E MELO: And these guys shouting like crazy people, murderer, murderer, genocide, killer and these kind of things. And I said in a very calm way, I said, look, murderer or killer is the virus, together with these crazy people.

KAKISSIS: The message worked. Millions of Portuguese were vaccinated in just a few weeks. The vice admiral is now a national hero. Maria Mota, the scientist, says the public was also reminded that vaccines helped eradicate previous outbreaks of diseases like polio.

MOTA: The country was very poor until the '70s. We had a dictatorship. We still remember people that really were extremely affected by polio and died and quite high child mortality. And vaccines came, and they were protective.

KAKISSIS: Christine Bertl felt the protection when she visited Lisbon recently, traveling from her home in Austria, where cases have been surging.

CHRISTINE BERTL: It's nice to travel, to appreciate our privilege and to not be in this strange bubble.

KAKISSIS: Bertl is a biochemist, and she's vaccinated. She blames anti-vaxxers in rich nations for the current wave of infections in the EU.

BERTL: They are neglecting history, just focusing on theirselves (ph). Maybe they are also cowards.

KAKISSIS: She says the EU now has millions of vaccines for people who won't take them. Mota, the Portuguese scientist, adds that those vaccines should go to nations that can't afford them to protect everybody.

MOTA: So new strains will appear in places that people are not vaccinated, OK? So it's like, of course if you leave the rest of the world unvaccinated, this is going to happen.

KAKISSIS: Meanwhile, the new COVID strain is making life with the pandemic uncertain again. So the Portuguese are doing what they can, masking up and registering for booster shots. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Lisbon.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "SHADOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.