Filipinos queue for free Covid-19 vaccinations at a sports complex in Manila. (Photo courtesy by Reuters)
You choose, vaccine or I will have you jailed
— President Rodrigo Roa Duterte
THE Duterte administration and health experts are pinning their hopes on the vaccination program, hoping that with 80 percent of Filipinos vaccinated we would achieve ‘herd immunity’ and thus beat the coronavirus by stopping the spread of infections dead on its tracks.
However, there are a lot of anecdotes that tell us what data from the experts simply can’t—and that is that vaccinated people appear to be getting the coronavirus at a surprisingly high rate. But exactly how often isn’t clear and neither is it certain how likely they are to spread the virus to others.
Though it is evident vaccination still provides powerful protection against the virus, there is growing concern that vaccinated people may be more vulnerable to serious illness than previously thought.
There’s a dearth of scientific studies with concrete answers, leaving public policymakers and corporate executives to formulate plans based on fragmented information. While our government is renewing stricter quarantine protocols and intensifying mask mandates or else delaying office and business reopening, there are others who cite the lack of clarity to justify staying the course. Actually, this has kept us in confusion and we can honestly feel like we’re in a mess.
The truth is that our government officials and those in the Department of Health (DoH) and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) who call themselves experts, should at least be humble about what they do know and what they don’t know.
And there are very few things that we can say definitively.
In reality, with the absence of clear public health messaging, vaccinated people are being left confused about how to protect themselves. Just how vulnerable they are is a key variable not just for public health officials trying to figure out, say, when booster shots might be needed, but also to inform decisions about whether to roll back reopening amid a new wave of the virus. On a smaller scale, the unknowns have left music lovers unsure if it’s OK to see a concert and prompted a fresh round of hand-wringing among parents pondering what school is going to look like.
In lieu of answers, what has emerged is a host of case studies providing somewhat different pictures of breakthrough infections. Variables including when the surveys were conducted, whether the Delta variant was present, how much of the population was vaccinated, and even what the weather was like at the time make it hard to compare results and map out patterns. It’s difficult to know which data might ultimately carry more heft.
With all of these said and done, there are facts well established at this point. Vaccinated people infected with the virus are much less likely to need to go to the hospital, much less likely to need intubation, and much less likely to die from the illness. There’s no doubt that vaccines provide significant protection. But a large proportion of the nation—more than 70 percent of Filipino adults—have not yet been vaccinated, a fact that has conspired with the highly contagious Delta variant to push the country into a new wave of outbreaks.
But the big picture here is that the vaccines are working and the reason for the spike in Covid-19 cases in the country is that the vaccine rollout is actually slower than what should be expected.
Finally, to a certain extent, breakthrough cases of any virus are expected. In clinical trials, no Covid vaccine was 100 percent effective—even the best vaccines never are. The more the virus is in circulation, the greater the risk of breakthrough cases. It’s also common for some aspects of viral immunity to naturally wane over time.
Still, for the time being, there are simply more questions than answers. Are breakthrough infections ticking up because of the Delta variant, waning immunity, or a return to normal life? Are vaccinated people more vulnerable to severe illness than previously thought? Just how common are breakthrough infections?
Actually, it’s anyone’s guess.