By ARITZ PARRA and HELENA ALVES
LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Portuguese health authorities on Monday identified 13 cases of omicron, the new coronavirus variant spreading fast globally, among members of a top soccer club and were investigating whether it was one of the first reported cases of local transmission of the virus outside of southern Africa.
The Ricardo Jorge National Health Institute said that one of those who tested positive was a player from the Lisbon-based Belenenses SAD soccer club who had recently traveled to South Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified. The others had not reportedly traveled to southern Africa, where most of the cases have been recorded so far.
Those who have been in contact with the positive cases have been ordered to isolate, regardless of their vaccination status or their exposure to possible contagion, and will be regularly tested for COVID-19, the institute said.
Portugal’s health general director, Graça Freitas, said that the players of Lisbon’s biggest team, Benfica, which played Belenenses SAD on Saturday, will also be tested for the virus.
“Since this is a new variant, we have to tighten the controls,” Freitas told the local TSF radio.
Asked about whether the game should have been allowed, the official said that health authorities don’t decide over professional soccer games and that it was the clubs themselves who made the call.
The Primeira Liga match started with just nine Belenenses SAD players on the pitch — two fewer than the game calls for — due to the coronavirus outbreak. But the referee suspended the game just after half-time, with Benfica leading 7-0, when only seven Belenenses SAD players took the field and the squad then lost another player.
Club president Rui Pedro Soares said that despite having a decimated squad, his club had not asked for the game to be postponed.
Benfica said that its players were tested on Monday as they normally are every week and that results were expected later in the day. It said the club had not received any requests to cancel Saturday’s game and league protocols were followed.
Benfica’s next scheduled match is the Primeira Liga derby against Sporting Lisbon on Friday.
Portugal also found two positive coronavirus cases when it screened 218 passengers who arrived in Lisbon on a flight from the capital of Mozambique on Saturday. One of the cases was the delta variant and the other one couldn’t be established, authorities said.
Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, with 86.6% of its 10.3 million residents having received two coronavirus jabs, authorities in Portugal have tightened pandemic restrictions amid a recent rise in infections.
Starting on Wednesday, wearing a face mask will once again be mandatory in enclosed spaces and digital certificates proving vaccination or recovery from the coronavirus must be shown to enter restaurants, cinemas and hotels.
The new measures also make a negative test result mandatory for everyone arriving on a flight from abroad.
The General Directorate for Health officially reported 2,897 new cases on Sunday, with 764 people in hospital, 104 in intensive care units and 12 deaths. Over 18,400 people have died of COVID-19 in Portugal since the beginning of the pandemic.
Parra reported from Madrid. AP sports writer Tales Azzoni in Madrid contributed to this report.
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