Portuguese health authorities have identified 13 cases of the omicron coronavirus variant among members of a professional football club and are investigating whether this was one of the first reported cases of local transmission of the virus outside of the country. Southern Africa.
The National Institute of Health Ricardo Jorge said one of those who tested positive was a player from Lisbon-based football club Belenenses SAD, which recently traveled to South Africa, where the omicron variant has been first identified.
The rest, including players and other club staff, have reportedly not traveled to southern Africa, where most cases have been recorded so far.
The institute said those who had come in contact with the positive cases were isolated regardless of their vaccination status.
Players of Lisbon’s biggest team, Benfica, who faced Belenenses SAD on Saturday, have also been tested for the virus.
“As this is a new variant, we need to tighten up controls,” Portugal’s director general of health, Graça Freitas, told local TSF radio.
Freitas said some of those infected were not showing any symptoms and all were improving.
“Despite being vaccinated, we know the vaccine is not 100% effective,” she told the SIC Noticias news channel.
Health authorities, clubs and the Portuguese Primeira Liga all faced questions for allowing the game to go ahead even when Belenenses SAD had already reduced their squad to nine players – two fewer than the game demands – due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Portuguese league has called for an “urgent” meeting with health authorities to understand what happened and discuss changes in current COVID-19 protocols for matches. He wondered why health officials had not considered all Belenenses players to be at high risk of contagion given the possible presence of the omicron variant.
The referee suspended the game just after half-time with Benfica leading 7-0, when just seven players from Belenenses SAD took the field and the team then lost another player.
Freitas said health authorities do not decide on professional football matches and it is the clubs themselves who have called.
Benfica said their players were tested on Monday as they normally are every week and the results came back negative. He said the club had not received any requests to cancel Saturday’s game and that league protocols were followed.
Benfica’s next scheduled game is the Primeira Liga derby against Sporting Lisbon on Friday.
Belenenses asked the league for a rematch on Monday, saying that due to his interpretation of the rules, the result should not count as the game was not completely over.
“The league should not ratify the outcome of the game and should schedule a new one,” he said in a letter sent to the league and which the club shared with the Associated Press.
Club president Rui Pedro Soares had said the club had not officially requested a postponement of the game, but had told the league he did not want to play it. The club said it was the responsibility of the league and health authorities to make the decision to postpone him.
The club told Portuguese media on Sunday that 16 of its players had tested positive and a total of 44 people had been put in isolation by health authorities.
Portugal also found two positive cases of coronavirus during the screening of 218 passengers who arrived in Lisbon on Saturday on a flight from the capital of Mozambique. One of the cases was the delta variant and the other could not be established, authorities said.
Despite one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, with 86.6% of its 10.3 million inhabitants having received two vaccines against the coronavirus, Portuguese authorities have tightened pandemic restrictions amid a recent increase in infections.
From Wednesday, wearing a face mask will again be mandatory in confined spaces and digital certificates proving vaccination or recovery from the coronavirus will have to be presented to enter restaurants, cinemas and hotels.
The new measures also make a negative test result mandatory for anyone arriving from abroad by air, land or sea.
The General Directorate of Health officially reported 1,635 new cases on Monday, with 809 people hospitalized, 111 in intensive care and 13 deaths. More than 18,400 people have died from COVID-19 in Portugal since the start of the pandemic.