By Honor Blanco Cabie
MANILA — Health authorities have painted what may be an uplifting scenario: the Philippines, which has suffered more than 3.5 million infections and nearly 54,200 deaths from the coronavirus since March 2020, is now at moderate COVID risk.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire has said even the country’s positivity rate is on a plunging trend, indicating what authorities call the downward trend of COVID cases.
This week, the number of active cases dropped to 153,335 while the positivity rate rose to 25.5 percent., with the country – population 110 million from Batanes down to Tawi Tawi – reporting the highest single-day tally on Jan. 15, with 39,004 new cases.
These developments have prompted some senators to agree to a proposal to get rid of the alert level system in Metro Manila, the country’s industrial and educational center where 13 million people live, to prepare for the time COVID-19 becomes endemic.
But Malacanang acting presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles has said the government is not keen on removing the alert level system protocols in preparation for possible surges of infection brought by a new variant of concern.
He said even health experts are very careful in treating COVID-19 as endemic.
Earlier on, authorities dubbed the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) of coronavirus 2019 a variant of concern by the World Health Organization based on evidence it has several mutations that may have what experts call an impact on how it behaves.
But these experts say there is still “substantial uncertainty regarding Omicron and a lot of research underway to evaluate its transmissibility, severity and reinfection risk.”
In December, top US pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci has warned of a bleak winter ahead as the Omicron variant spurs a new wave of infections worldwide, sparking restrictions and concerns over hospital capacity.
“One thing that’s very clear… is (Omicron’s) extraordinary capability of spreading,” Fauci told NBC News. “It is just… raging through the world.”
Since it was first reported in South Africa in November, Omicron has been identified in dozens of countries, including the Philippines, prompting many to reimpose travel restrictions and other measures.
Despite indications, it is not more severe than the Delta variant – currently still the dominant strain — the heavily mutated Omicron has been shown in early data to have a worrying resistance to vaccines and higher transmissibility.
Fauci also cautioned against too much optimism over Omicron’s severity, noting that in South Africa, while the hospitalization-to-case ratio is lower than with Delta, this could be due to underlying immunity from widespread previous infections.
“No matter how you look at it,” he said, “when you have so many, many infections, even if it is less severe, that overcomes this slight to moderate diminution in severity.”
“Our hospitals, if things look like they’re looking now in the next week or two, are going to be very stressed,” particularly in areas of the country with low levels of vaccination, Fauci said.
These developments overseas are being watched keenly as at home a health official announced a third case of the Omicron coronavirus variant has been detected in the Philippines, which has come under various rungs of lockdown since mid March 2020.
In an online media forum, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire identified the case as a 36-year-old returning overseas Filipino who already tested negative for COVID-19 on December 19 after a repeat test.
He arrived at the Mactan-Cebu International Airport from Qatar on November 28. A sample was collected from him on December 4 which yielded a positive result on December 5.
“The case completed his isolation in Cebu before traveling back to Cavite, his hometown, where he immediately self quarantined upon arrival. The case is currently finishing his home quarantine in Cavite and has remained asymptomatic since his arrival,” Vergeire said.
According to Vergeire, the DOH is identifying the possible close contacts of the case among his co-passengers.
It is also verifying the test results and health status of all passengers of the flights taken by the confirmed cases.
On December 15, the Department of Health reported the first two imported cases of the Omicron variant.
One of the cases is a ROF who arrived from Japan on December 1 via Philippine Airlines flight number PR 0427.
The other case is a Nigerian who arrived on November 30 via Oman Air with flight number WY 843.
On December 16, the DOH said the cases remain in isolation and under close monitoring, and seven close contacts of them have been identified.
How did the Omicron variant develop?
World health authorities say when a virus is circulating widely and causing numerous infections, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases, which means the more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.
New variants like Omicron are a reminder, according to experts, that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) itself says it is “essential that people get the vaccine when available to them and continue to follow existing advice on preventing the spread of the virus, including physical distancing, wearing masks, regular handwashing and keeping indoor areas well ventilated.
“(It) is also crucial that vaccines and other public health measures are accessible everywhere. Vaccine inequity leaves lower income countries – many of them in Africa – at the mercy of COVID-19. Well-supplied countries must urgently deliver the doses they promised.”
There is this stalking fear that Omicron, which has now been detected in many countries, is probably in most countries even if this latest variant has not been detected yet.
There have also been thoughts on previous findings that Omicron might be less severe than the Delta variant, but experts say more data is needed and WHO has warned it should not be dismissed as “mild.”
These experts suggest it is important to remember that all variants of COVID-19 can cause severe disease or death, including the Delta variant that is still dominant worldwide, which is why preventing the spread of the virus and reducing your risk of exposure to the virus is so important.
Based on information available, WHO believes it is likely that Omicron will outpace the Delta variant where there is COVID-19 transmission in the community.
However, being vaccinated and taking precautions such as avoiding crowded spaces, keeping your distance from others, and wearing a mask are critical in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and we know these actions have been effective against other variants.
|With the continuing booster shots made available to the population after the second dose of vaccines had been taken, there remain questions if the COVID-19 vaccines can be effective against the Omicron variant.
Researchers are looking into any potential impact the Omicron variant has on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
Information is still limited, according to experts, but there may be a small reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines against severe illness and death, and a decline in preventing mild disease and infection.
However, WHO reports that so far it looks like the currently available vaccines offer significant protection against severe disease and death.
It is also important to be vaccinated to protect against the other widely circulating variants, such as the Delta one.
UNICEF suggests strongly: “When it’s your turn, make sure to get vaccinated. If your vaccination involves two doses, it’s important to receive both in order to have the maximum protection.”
(HBC is the president of the Alumni Association of the graduate school Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication, is a speechwriter who teaches journalism and literature.)