By Catarina Demony
LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal's firefighters, police, and people over 50 with pre-existing conditions will start getting COVID-19 vaccinations from next week, the government said on Monday, scrambling to reduce soaring infection rates that are overwhelming hospitals.
Lawmakers and government ministers will also get vaccinated from next week, Health Minister Marta Temido said.
Medical staff spoke of despair at the steep increase in cases in the country of 10 million people. Portugal fared better than others in the first wave of the pandemic but now has the world's highest seven-day rolling average of new daily cases and deaths per million inhabitants, according to data tracker ourworldindata.org.
"Colleagues are ... completely worn out and some days they just feel like crying," an ambulance worker told Reuters. She spoke anonymously as her employer does not allow staff to talk to the media without permission.
"People have already died in ambulances and will continue to die because there is no capacity to respond," she said, adding: "I recently took a patient to hospital and I had to wait two hours inside the ambulance ... I have colleagues who waited five, six, nearly seven hours."
Last week, an elderly man died in an ambulance after a three-hour wait outside a hospital in the town of Portalegre. The week before, an 80-year-old man died waiting for hours outside the Torres Vedras hospital.
Portuguese hospitals have said they are running out of beds.
The health ministry said demand for emergency services has spiked, "putting great pressure" on response capacity.
"The excess pressure in hospitals is real," Temido told a news conference.
"In many cases, hospitals have escalated their contingency plans to the maximum and gone beyond," she said, adding that authorities were trying to set up more hospital beds and may move hospitalised people to their homes where possible to free up space.
Across the national health service (SNS), there are 830 intensive care beds allocated to COVID-19 patients out of a total of 1,200, the health ministry said. Monday's data showed 767 people infected with the virus were in ICUs.
Portugal has more than doubled the overall number of ICU beds since the start of the pandemic.
There are 18,500 intermediate care beds in public hospital wards, with 5,900 allocated to COVID-19. A total of 6,420 coronavirus patients are now on the wards, above SNS' capacity. Some are in the private sector.
Temido said Portugal has so far received around 411,600 doses of vaccines but only 255,700 doses have been administered so far to frontline health workers and care home residents.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Victoria Waldersee and Sergio Goncalves; Editing by Ingrid Melander, Philippa Fletcher and David Gregorio)