Jabs in isolation: How a remote Portuguese island dodged COVID-19

Azores, Portugal: Battered by North Atlantic weather and sometimes starved of vital supplies, the tiny Portuguese island of Corvo has a crucial advantage in the fight against the pandemic: its remoteness.

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Lying hundreds of kilometres from continental Europe, the smallest island in the Azores – dominated by a volcanic crater and dotted with lakes – appears to have escaped unscathed.

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By Saturday, almost its entire 400-strong population had been vaccinated, its only doctor rejoicing as people lined up at a sports complex for their second Pfizer dose.

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“We’re already living a life that’s very close to normal,” beamed Antonio Salgado, checking names off his list. “And now it will be even more so!”

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The 62-year-old physician arrived on Corvo less than a year ago but he is already accustomed to occasional shortages of fruit and fuel – and he has learnt to make homemade yoghurt.

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“This makes up for all the difficulties we experience daily,” he said.

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‘An immunised territory’

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Portugal decided to fully vaccinate the island without moving through priority groups.

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Local health official Clelio Meneses explained that the number of jabs needed to immunise Corvo would not affect rollouts elsewhere in the Azores.

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“The only responsible thing to do was to vaccinate the whole population in one go to create an immunised territory,” he said.

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With only one ventilator on the island and no hospital beds at all, an outbreak on Corvo could have been devastating.

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“We were very afraid that someone would come and contaminate all of us, like off a boat,” said Goreti Melo, one of the island’s two nurses.

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“The spread would’ve been disastrous and very rapid,” said mayor Jose Manuel Silva, who recalled that some of his constituents wanted the island to be closed off.

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“We only have one bakery so inevitably we all go to the same places.”

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‘A capsule’

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Mainland Portugal has battled one of the world’s most persistent outbreaks, imposing strict confinement measures as more than 16,000 people have died from more than 800,000 infections.

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But on Corvo there has been just a single COVID-19 case – a local who ventured to the continent for the Christmas holidays.

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People on the 17-square-kilometre island can meet in cafes and restaurants to compare vaccine side effects in person.

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However, the island has few sources of income – a small fleet of fishing boats and a herd of about 1,000 cattle account for its farming economy.

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Tourism provides a livelihood for some, but the pandemic has killed that revenue stream and left the island especially dependent on outside help.

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Local teacher Elisabete Barradas, who says she feels “very privileged” after receiving her second vaccine dose, explained that the island had felt like “a capsule” for much of the pandemic.

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But she said residents were now watching how it played out in the rest of the world “with a lot of concern”.

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