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DOH, COVID task force see easing restrictions soon

Photo a child getting COVID-19 vaccination for story: DOH, COVID task force see easing restrictions soon

GOT YOUR BACK: Cosplayers in superhero costumes assist children who are getting their COVID-19 vaccine shot at Filoil Flying V Arena in San Juan City on Monday, assuring them that everything will be alright. San Juan joined other local governments in Metro Manila during this week’s launch of the vaccination drive for kids aged 5 to 11. (Photo by NIÑO JESUS ORBETA / Philippine Daily Inquirer)

MANILA, Philippines — The country may soon be easing restrictions, moving to the lowest alert level, if COVID-19 cases continue to decline, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and officials of the national pandemic task force raised the possibility on Monday.

On Monday, the Department of Health (DOH) reported 6,835 new infections, the seventh straight day the tally remained below 10,000.

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According to Duque, the country now has a low-risk, two-week negative growth rate of 40 percent and a moderate-risk average daily attack rate (Adar), or the number of individuals infected per 100,000 population.

The country’s health system capacity based on two submetrics — total bed utilization and intensive care unit (ICU) bed usage — was also at low risk, Duque added.

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“Will these reach the threshold for alert level 1? Let’s wait a little longer,” he said.

“If COVID-19 cases continue to decline and reach the threshold appropriate for alert level 1 then we will do that. Nothing will prevent us from de-escalating to alert level 1 but the sooner the better,” he pointed out.

Duque stressed that this was also the reason for the government’s aggressive stance about the country’s vaccination program.

In Cebu City, Carlito Galvez Jr., the chief implementer of the National Task Force Against COVID-19, and Vince Dizon, presidential adviser on COVID-19 and testing czar, said they also believed the Philippines would soon ease restrictions and shift policy to “living with the virus.”

According to Galvez, the government was already making the necessary preparations for a transition to the new normal.

“Experts [have] told us that the country may ease restrictions by March this year. But this will depend on the vaccination rate and the data of cases on the ground,” he said in an interview.

Galvez, also the country’s vaccine czar, said the transition would eventually treat COVID-19 as an “endemic virus” and people would have to live with it as long as the majority of the population had been vaccinated.

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The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines endemic “as the constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease in a population within a geographic area.”

Experts, he said, have told them that the virus was evolving with lesser hospitalization and severe and critical cases.

“That is why we can loosen up some more,” he said.

“You see that many countries, including the United Kingdom, are now transitioning. And you see that our quarantine facilities and isolation protocols in the country have been slowly removed,” Galvez added.

“In this Omicron surge, we learned from experts all over the world that we can slowly relax (our protocols),” Dizon added.

“We rely on the experts because they know where the virus is going,” Dizon said.

The reopening to foreign tourists on Feb. 10 and the removal of the facility-based quarantine for fully vaccinated international travelers was among the eased restrictions that form part of the steps to a “permissive” policy.

Virus still here

Despite the country’s low-risk status for COVID-19, however, infectious diseases expert Rontgene Solante on Monday warned against easing restrictions further in Metro Manila by placing it under the most relaxed alert level 1 this month, saying this would be too drastic a move.

Solante, chief of the Adult Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Unit at San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, said that even if COVID-19 infections have gone down in the metropolis, the number of cases was still high and transmission was still taking place.

“In my opinion, we still need to stay in alert level 2. It’s too early and I think it’s too drastic to change to a lower alert level,” Solante said at the Laging Handa briefing.

It would be better to monitor the cases in the next two weeks, he added.

“Remember, cases and transmission are still high and we need to be vigilant about these numbers,” Solante said, reminding the public that despite the easing of restrictions in some areas, the pandemic was still here and they should still avoid nonessential gatherings and observe health protocols.

Metro Manila and several other areas in the country were downgraded to alert level 2 in the first half of the month after a surge in cases in January attributed to the Omicron variant slowed down.

Some 100,000 to 200,000 jobs were estimated to have returned following the easing of the alert level, according to Trade Undersecretary Ruth Castelo.

Under alert level 2, most establishments can operate at 50-percent indoor capacity and 70-percent outdoor.

Castelo added that for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the alert level system should be removed gradually to give people time to prepare and have the proper mindset that they should continue to observe health protocols even if restrictions have been relaxed.

“For DTI, it should be gradual until we get used to it and accept that our new normal involves health protocols,” she said.

Unvaccinated at high risk

The DOH data on Monday showed that of the 7,620 severe and critical cases and 6,254 COVID-19 deaths reported from Nov. 5, 2021, to Feb. 6, 2022, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated individuals accounted for 71.8 percent of the severe cases and 77.4 percent of the deaths.

“Moreover, among these admissions, severe and critical symptoms are 1.63 times more likely to occur among non-fully vaccinated individuals compared to fully vaccinated individuals, while death from COVID-19 is 2.08 times more likely in non-fully vaccinated individuals,” the DOH said.

“Consistent with scientific evidence, COVID-19 vaccines continue to protect (against) severe illness and death. Vaccination remains the country’s long-term solution against the consequences brought about by the pandemic,” it added.

The country’s positivity rate was 19.1 percent, lower than the 21.5 percent on Sunday. This was based on 36,773 people tested on Saturday.

The positivity rate is the percentage of tests conducted that came out positive for COVID-19. The World Health Organization’s benchmark positivity rate of below 5 percent, sustained for two weeks, indicates that virus transmission is under control.

The national caseload, according to DOH data, was now 3,616,387. Recoveries stood at 3,445,129 and the death toll at 54,538, the DOH said.

The DOH also reported four more deaths due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The deaths raised to nine the number of people who succumbed to Omicron in the country.

The DOH said the samples of the new fatalities were detected among the 1,680 specimens that underwent the latest whole genome sequencing by the University of the Philippines-Philippine Genome Center (PGC) Diliman, UP-PGC Visayas and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine.

Out of those sequenced, 1,569 were found to be of the Omicron variant, of which 1,458 were local cases, 76 returning overseas Filipinos and 35 others still being verified.

Based on the case line list, 72 cases were still active, four have died and 1,403 have been tagged as recovered.

There are now 2,722 confirmed Omicron variant cases in the country.

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