Portugal makes vaccination process easy to use

Covid Vaccination center in Tomar
Pavilhão Jácome Ratton, the Covid vaccination center in Tomar, is a spacious sports facility,

Portugal was slow to get its vaccination program going, but now the process is swift, efficient and user friendly – even for expats! (But you do have to be registered in the Portuguese system with a numero de Utente.)

Back in December, I received a text message from the Direção-Geral da Saúde; DGS, an office in the Portuguese health department which is handling the vaccination response to the Covid19 virus. It outlined a multi-phase approach. Some essential workers and people in their eighties would be receiving the shots first, followed by those in their 70s and 60s and so on.

Unfortunately, as many news organizations reported, the European Union’s approach to ordering supplies of vaccines left a lot to be desired. While the US and UK were able to go full steam ahead with vaccinating their populations, EU counties were short of the needed doses. In addition, there were concerns about the AstraZenica vaccine, the one being most commonly used in Europe, over a few cases of dangerous blood clots among the millions who had received the shot.

Online appointments

I filled in my personal information on the health department website, but by spring I was still waiting to hear when I could get a shot. I thought I would get a text or phone call from my local health clinic. But in late April, I learned that I could request an appointment.

I was able to request a vaccination appointment online. Within a day, I received a text on my mobile phone offering me a time slot. Once I texted back confirming I would attend, I was all set.

On the appointed day, I drove to the vaccination center, a large sports facility in Tomar, my nearest town. Inside, numerous assistants were available to help with the paperwork. They were quick to offer help in English to anyone who appeared to be having trouble with the form written in Portuguese.

Next, we had to give the completed forms to one of the assistants seated at a row of socially distanced desks. Large dots on the floor kept everyone appropriately separated as we waited to hand in the paperwork. The assistants checked off our names against the list of appointments for the day.

A row of booths had been set up for the actual vaccinations. It took less than a minute. After the shot, we were directed to sit on a numbered chair while we waited 30 minutes to see if we had a reaction. Another assistant informed us when the half hour was up and we could leave.

The only downside is that authorities here have decided to space out the vaccinations by 12 weeks, so my next vaccination appointment isn’t until late July.

Looking good for the future

But, Portugal has emerged from the lockdown imposed in January in a good situation. Numbers of new infections and hospitalizations are well down. Portugal is now on the “green list” of countries that UK travelers can soon visit without having to quarantine upon their return. And, US tourists may soon be able to visit the country again, according to Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

Healthcare services great for expats in Portugal

Portugal has a good quality healthcare system.  In fact, the World Health Organization has ranked the publicly funded national health system, Serviço Nacional de Saude, as 12th best in the world. 

Expats moving to Portugal from another EU country can use the healthcare issued in their own country until they obtain a residency permit. For expats coming from the US it is a little more complicated. US citizens must obtain a D7 visa if they plan to move to Portugal. Having private health insurance coverage is one of the visa requirements. Among the companies that offer the necessary coverage are: Cigna Global Health and Allianz Care.

Services easily accessible to expatriates

There is a network of health clinics in towns and villages throughout the country where you can see a doctor or nurse. In small villages, clinics are usually only open a couple days a week. Hospitals are located in the larger towns. There are also numerous private doctors, clinics and hospitals.

Once you have a residency permit you can register with your local health center (Centro de Saude.) You can then book appointments (Marcação para consulta) by phone, in person or online. Many doctors speak excellent English, so you don’t have to worry about communicating.

Costs are low

Portugal’s health insurance system covers most costs. But you may have to pay a small charge for the consultation and tests. Services are free for those over 65 years old. It’s worth knowing that costs at private clinics are very affordable compared to the US. For example, a visit to a dermatologist to remove sun damage skin spots cost just 60 Euros, without insurance.

You typically need a doctor’s referral to visit a specialist. There are specialists at local hospitals and certain clinics. However, there can be long waiting times for some services. 

It’s usually easy to get appointments at labs for medical tests. Staff are quick, efficient and polite.

Private health insurance widely available 

Allianz and Cigna are some of the largest  health insurance companies operating in Portugal. Be aware that some health insurance companies do not insure people over 55. For other companies, the limit may be 65 years or 70 years old. In that case, an international health insurance plan is probably the best option. Banks in Portugal also offer health insurance.  

Some useful numbers

For an ambulance in case of a medical emergency, call 112. 

SNS (Serviço Nacional de Saude) hotline: 808 242 424 available 24/7 also in English

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Portugal’s great hiking, biking trails

Portugal has lots of cycling routes through the hilly countryside.
Portugal is a great place to cycle, even though the terrain can be challenging. The scenery is spectacular and there is little traffic on the country roads.

Portugal has a great system of bicycling trails that are part of the Eurovelo network. Whether you ride a mountain bike, a road bike or choose to do touring, there are plenty of cycling options.

The Eurovelo network extends throughout continental Europe. In Portugal, there is a well-marked trail going from North to South. Another goes through Spain and traverses the country. Or, you can ride along an Atlantic trail in the Algarve, on the southern coast.

Three major bike routes in Portugal.

Cycling is very popular in towns all over Portugal. Even on country roads where there are no shoulders, motorists are very considerate of cyclists. I used to be terrified riding on some back roads in New Mexico. Here in Portugal I haven’t had any problems. Drivers in the country are used to having to slow for tractors and animals. I also haven’t encountered the broken glass that was an unwelcome feature of roadsides all over New Mexico.

Small communities all over Portugal also have networks of way-marked trails that are suitable for walking or mountain biking.

There are also some great long-distance hiking trails in Portugal. One of the better known routes of the Camino de Santiago, starts in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, and extends northward to the Spanish border. Another popular long hiking trail is the Rota Vicentina from Sines to Sagres, in southwestern Portugal.

Hiking trail under a hill with wind turbines on top.
Hiking on a way-marked trail near Alvaiazere, in Central Portugal. The trail goes over two big hills and skirts a valley beneath a crest where several wind turbines turn gently in the breeze.

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Oh the joy of easing Covid lockdown restrictions

Markets are open again in Portugal
The Sunday morning market was buzzing with life today in my local village of Chãos, near Tomar in Central Portugal.

One of the happiest signs as Portugal’s lockdown is gradually easing, is the return of the local market. On Sunday morning, my local village of Chãos, in Central Portugal, was buzzing with life as vendors spread their wares in the market square.

Normally, the second Sunday of the month is a major local market day with vendors of gardening supplies, tools, clothing, shoes, kitchen items, veggie seedlings and young trees and of course – live poultry! It’s also a major social occasion as many of the older people show up to chat to their neighbors as they get their weekly supplies. A lot of that has been missing for the last three months. During the lockdown, which took effect in mid-January, only food vendors could sell at the local markets. The market square looked almost deserted as only a few vegetable sellers would show up.

Another newly delightful experience is being able to go to a cafe or restaurant. As of April 5, restaurants could serve customers outside. Up to four people are allowed to sit at one table. Luckily the weather cooperated, at least for the early part of the week. Sitting outside in the sunshine enjoying a meal with a friend for the first time in months was such heaven!

Typical Portuguese meal, mixed grill with French fries, rice and salad.
A typical Portuguese meal: mixed grill with French fries, rice and salad. At my local restaurant this dish plus wine and dessert costs just 7.50 Euros at lunch time.

Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa announced a phased relaxation of the “confinamento” restrictions on March 11. He justified the reopening plan based on the improvement in numbers of people infected and hospitalized with the Covid19 virus. Numbers soared in January, averaging more than 12,000 new infections daily. The situation threatened to overwhelm the country’s healthcare system. Costa said the restrictions appeared to be working. As of April 10, the daily average of new cases recorded over previous seven days was 541 cases.

Portugal, like many other European Union countries, has been slower in its vaccine rollout than the United States. As of April 11, 21 percent of the US population had been fully vaccinated according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Portugal that figure was 6.1 percent, with 15.2 percent of the population having received one dose.

Portugal busy with spring activity

One of my Portuguese neighbors is hard at work in the huge vegetable garden he has created in recent weeks.

Spring has definitely arrived in my part of Central Portugal. The air is full of pollen, which is the bane of people with allergies. It’s a season when the sounds of strimmers (aka weed wackers) and chainsaws ring across the valleys as people clear their land. Portuguese law requires property owners to remove undergrowth and brush from their land to reduce fire risk. Wildfires are unfortunately all too common in some parts of the country during the dry summer months.

Now though, all is lush and green. The sun has been shining and my neighbors are out early planting their gardens. Last year was the first year I tried my hand at growing vegetables. Thanks to abundant rain in April everything I planted shot up, I even outwitted the snails. It was such a satisfying experience I decided to do it again this year. We are still in lockdown so I can’t travel. So far, I have planted potatoes, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, radishes and green beans. 

Flowers provide a riot of colors

Warm sunshine has brought out the flowers too. The Rua Principal through my village is lined with wisteria. Calla lilies and deep purple irises bloom alongside several houses. Fruit trees began blossoming at the beginning of March and the plum trees along my street are already bursting with leaves. 

Looking like some kind of purple waterfall, wisteria lines the street that runs through my village in Central Portugal

One of the best signs is the emergence of tiny blossoms on the olive trees. This is a necessary indicator of what kind of olive harvest can be expected. Since olive oil is a key agricultural product in Central Portugal people are eager to see the flowers. Last year the olive harvest was very poor. Many people blamed it on wet and windy weather during the spring.

Tiny blossoms on olive trees
Tiny flowers have recently appeared on the olive trees indicating the likelihood of a good olive harvest in October or November. Last year the olive harvest was very poor, so this is a good sign.

Portugal to emerge from Covid lockdown: slow and steady

Gorgeous flowers brighten dark Covid times.
Forest path symbol of the way out of Covid lockdown
This shaded path through a cork oak forest makes me think of what it has felt like during the latest lockdown. Emerging from the lockdown will be a long and winding trail requiring more patience.

Portugal has been in a “state of emergency”, otherwise known as lockdown, since mid-January. Last week there was good news from Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa when he announced a timeline for reopening life as we would like it to be.

I should be thrilled that from tomorrow, 15 March, hairdressers will be allowed to reopen. It’s been nearly three months since I had a trim and my head looks pretty wild and woolly. I am not alone in that! At least from what I can seen of my fellow yoga class participants on Zoom.

As for meeting friends for a cup of coffee at a cafe, that will have to wait until 19 April at least. That is when cafes and restaurants will be allowed to open in a very limited capacity.

It will still be a long time until my yoga group can meet again on the open area outside my house. Since there are six of us, it will be 3 May before groups of that size can congregate.

Timeline for reopening in Portugal

  • 15 March: Hairdressers, barbers, daycare centers, pre-schools, primary (elementary) schools, bookstores, car dealers and libraries
  • 5 April: Museums, palaces, art galleries, shops up to 200 square meters (2,152 sq.ft). Fairs and non-food markets will be allowed to open based on the decision of the local authorities. Low-risk physical activities outdoors will be allowed for groups of up to four people, gyms can reopen but no group classes.
  • 19 April: Secondary (high) schools and universities, restaurants and cafes with a maximum capacity of four people at a table inside and six at terrace tables, until 10 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. on weekends. Physical activities outside with groups of up to six people. Outdoor events such as weddings with limited capacity.
  • 3 May: Restaurants and cafes can open with no time restrictions, maximum of six at a table inside, 10 on terrace tables. No restrictions on sports activities.

Travel and border restrictions

Even though some things will be reopening, life will still be restricted over the upcoming Easter period. Travel between municipalities is prohibited for the weekend of 20-21 March and from 26 March until 5 April. This is because Easter (4 April) is a big event in Portugal, a time when families typically get together.

The Border with Spain will remain closed until 5 April.

So, I am at least glad I can enjoy hiking with a friend and experiencing the glories of spring in Portugal.

Happy signs of spring in Portugal after Covid crisis

Spring blossoms on plum tree
Spring blossoms on plum tree
Clusters of white blossoms on this plum tree are a welcome sign of spring.

Spring at last is appearing in my part of Central Portugal. I’ve seen daffodils, irises, blossoms on the fruit trees and all kinds of flowers I don’t even have names for.

For me, these welcome signs couldn’t come soon enough. Covid numbers skyrocketed in Portugal right after Christmas leading the government to impose a lockdown in mid-January. Restaurants, cafes, hairdressers and all but essential shops were closed. School closures followed on 22 January. At the same time, the unusually cold but bright weather we’d been experiencing turned to clouds, rain and more rain. Spirits drooped.

Covid numbers improving

The good news is that the lockdown seems to be having the desired effect. After a few weeks where Portugal had some of the highest rates of infection and mortality, numbers of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations are declining.

With the arrival of March, it feels like we are turning a corner. Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa said on 26 Feb. that he expects to make an announcement on 11 March about a plan for “deconfinement.”

““I am certainly the first to share the same anxiety so that we can quickly turn the page on this confinement and I am well aware of the cost to everyone’s life,” said the prime minister. “I am well aware of the cost for the companies, for those who have lost their jobs,” he added, ensuring that the Government has sought to “always maintain balance”.

March 2 was the anniversary of the first Covid cases identified in Portugal. As of March 1 this year there were 804,956 cases and 16,351 deaths recorded in Portugal, according to the statistics website Worldometers.info. Portugal has a population of around 10.2 million. Worldwide, the website showed 114 million cases, 29 million of those were in the United States

The weather has changed too. For the past few days, we have enjoyed sunshine and temperatures of around 16 to 18 degrees Celcius (in the mid-60s Fahrenheit.) Flowers are everywhere. The plum and peach trees I planted last year are bursting with blossoms. So I hope I will have plenty of fruit come summer.

It’s a joy to walk through the lanes and see the bright splashes of color. The sound of chain saws and brush clearing machines is another sign of spring in Portugal. People trim their olive trees to encourage fuller and more productive growth. Laws require people to clear their land of brush to deter forest fires.

Walking trail in Central Portugal.
A path near the village of Cumes where I walk my dog most morning.

Saggy socks send message of support

Me and my two best friends
Showing me and my two best friends
From left: Janie, Rosalie and Julia, at a reunion in London in pre-Covid times.

Portugal is back in lockdown again as the numbers of those infected with the Covid virus have skyrocketed. Since January 15, restaurants, cafés and non-essential businesses have been closed. Schools closed a week later. The streets of my local towns of Tomar, Ferreira de Zezere and Freixanda are deserted. On top of that, the weather has been rainy. It’s all very sad.

The silver lining in this miasma of gloom is the support I have from several old friends. Thank goodness for technology and the memory of our schoolgirl socks.

I had a very unusual upbringing for an American child. I was sent to an English boarding school at age nine. 

It was the 1960s, and staff at the school had lived through WWII and the Blitz. They epitomized the stiff upper lip, no molly-coddling approach to life. They didn’t take kindly to whining or moaning. No, the response was, “You need to jolly well pull your socks up!”

This turn of phrase had less to do with our clothing – we wore brown knee socks, even in winter – than a reminder to just get on with life and don’t give excuses. 

Another colorful phrase I remember was, “We don’t have any goo-goo sop-sops here!”

It may sound as though this was an inhospitable environment but I am grateful for the experience. At boarding school I met Janie and Julia, who have remained my friends throughout my life. 

In the five decades since our schooldays, the three of us have collected marriages, children and grandchildren. We’ve endured some of life’s toughest blows as well; divorces, the loss of children, ill health. 

One of the beautiful things that has happened as a result of the Covid nightmare is the reconnection we have established. Thank goodness for technology.

Our weekly Zoom and Houseparty conversations over the last few months have brought us closer than we’d been in years. We can let down our guard, allow ourselves to show vulnerability and freely give each other the support of trusting friendship.

I have promised my dear friends, “I will never say pull your socks up and I will never call you a goo-goo sop-sop.” So maybe we three will proudly call ourselves the Socks Around the Ankles Gals.

Child’s socks around the ankles
As a child of nine at boarding school in England, we were told to “Jolly well pull your socks up!” which meant, get on with life and don’t expect any molly-coddling.

Déja vu again as we wait for spring

With Covid restrictions in place yet again, it is a relief to be able to walk in the woods. Nature is a joy, but sometimes you do need human company.

I feel like I am re-watching a dark movie. Portugal went into Covid lockdown again on January 15. At the same time, the glorious weather we’d been having switched to days of rain. It’s like the early months of 2020 all over again.

Under lockdown, people are required to stay home except for essential trips to buy food, attend medial appointments or other activities deemed essential. Cafes, bars and restaurants are once again closed. The weekend curfews mean no traveling between municipalities from 8 pm Friday evening to 5 am Monday morning.

Looking out at the empty street of my village and the rain dripping off the trees it feels sad. Like a war where we are held hostage by an invisible enemy. In this war, unlike others, we cannot cling to each other for support. In this war, solitude can be a killer too.

Covid numbers skyrocket

Until late autumn, Portugal (population 10.2 million) had done a good job containing the virus compared to much larger European neighbors like Spain, France and Italy. But since November, numbers of infections have soared.

As of January 26, there are more than 643,000 Covid cases and 10,000 deaths from the disease in Portugal according to the statistics tracking site Worldometers.info.

Voters brave lockdown in presidential election

Despite the pandemic, Portugal was able to hold a presidential election on Sunday, January 24. It was such a low-key affair compared to the razz-a-ma-tazz of the recent US election. I went down my local Sunday morning market (operating at a fraction of its normal activity level because of the restrictions.) The local post office functioned as a polling site. A flyer showing photos of the seven candidates was posted on the wall. Instructions told voters to wear masks and use their own pens.

Incumbent Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won another 5-year term. This kindly looking 72-year-old former professor will have a tough job. But brighter days are hopefully ahead. As of January 26, more than 255,000 vaccines have been administered. Prime Minister Antonio Costa, the man with executive power, is predicting 70 percent of the Portuguese population will receive the injections by late summer.

So, roll on spring and summer. It rained a lot during the lockdown last year too. The wonderful part of that was the dazzling display of gorgeous flowers. I am looking forward to that!

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Just a few of the infinite array of flowers blooming during the 2020 Covid spring lockdown.

Portuguese healthcare, a welcome change

A sign at my local health clinic explains the different routes by which expatriates can obtain healthcare in the Portuguese system.

I admit, one of the things that prodded me into retiring in Portugal was my fear of the US healthcare system. Even if you reach the golden age, as I did, where you can enroll in Medicare, it remains expensive, complex and often frustrating to get care when you need it.

In fact, the colossal cost of healthcare is one of the leading reasons why people file for bankruptcy in the US.

My experience of Portugal’s health system has been a delightful change from the costly bureaucratic US nightmare.

I was recently able to see my local primary care doctor and get several lab test with no hassle and no cost! Yay!

Special Circumstances

But I have a huge advantage over most US citizens who move to Portugal. I have a second passport – from Ireland which is an E.U. Country. I was able to obtain this through my Irish grandparents.

Using my Irish passport, I was able to get a 5-year residency permit from my local Camara Municipal (the local government office.) I also registered the Centro de Saude (health center) where I got a “Numero de Utente” or Users Number, so I could then register with the doctor who visits my village.

I also got help from the local Social Security office to get registered in the Portuguese social security system.

Visiting the Doctor

The health clinic in my village is open twice a week; Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings. There is also a pharmacy next door.

I had no need to visit the clinic until recently when I thought I should get a mammogram and see about the heartburn that has bothered me lately.

At the clinic, I showed the document with my numero de utente and the social security number, explained my problems and was told to wait.

After about 30 minutes I was able to see the doctor who spoke good English (I always start in Portuguese but often they switch languages if you are struggling.) He wrote orders for a raft of tests, including the mammogram.

I was able to get blood tests without hassle at a lab in the nearby town and will have to book appointments for the mammogram and other tests for a date next month.

It’s Different for US Citizens

For US citizens without the benefit of an Irish or other EU passport, you have to obtain private health insurance before moving to Portugal. There are many options but many expats have recommended Ged Heaney, a Scotsman who lives in Porto. I consulted him about travel health insurance for the trip back to the US and he was very helpful.