DOH experts urge public to keep using all layers of COVID-19 protection available
MANILA, Philippines — Experts from the Department of Health (DOH) on Wednesday appeared cautious about the impending move of the administration to make face mask use indoors voluntary.
Dr. Anna Ong-Lim, a DOH’s Technical Advisory Group Pediatric Infectious Diseases member, warned that based on past COVID-19 infection trends, virus transmission is bound to increase, especially with full face-to-face classes by November.
“So siguro sa akin, from the pediatric infectious disease perspective, walang mawawala kung magpatuloy na magsuot ng mask ang mga bata lalo na sa school settings kung saan magsisimula pa lang tayo ng full implementation,” she said.
(So maybe for me, from the pediatric infectious disease perspective, there is nothing to lose if children continue to wear masks, especially in school settings where implementation of full in-person classes is about to start.)
She also said it might be easier to observe the effects of eased health protocols if the curbs are removed one by one.
“I think we have learned enough in the past two years to realize that masking is very valuable. It’s not particularly difficult naman, I think lahat naman tayo nasanay na rin sa isang health habit na ito na nakakatulong not just for COVID but for many other diseases, particularly respiratory symptoms,” Ong-Lim said.
(I think we have learned enough in the past two years to realize that masking is very valuable. Although it’s not particularly difficult, I think we’ve all gotten used to this health habit that helps not just for COVID but for many other diseases, particularly respiratory symptoms.)
“So let’s continue to use all the layers that we have at our disposal,” she added.
Metro Manila Center for Health Development (MMCHD) Director IV Dr. Alethea de Guzman likewise expressed similar sentiments, but stressed the importance of focusing more on the admission rate than the transmission rate.
She explained that once the level of protection given by the mandatory use of face masks is removed, the government and the public should then observe the number of admissions, especially in severe and critical cases.
“These past few months have shown us that even though we had increases in our cases, our health system capacity was able to actually accommodate these increases in cases. Kasama na an ICU dito (This includes the ICU),” de Guzman said.
“With this removal of another layer of protection, Higit pa ‘yung halaga na bantayan natin kung magkakaroon ito ng epekto hindi na siguro sa kaso, doon na sa admission natin. Ang naaadmit ba ang mga bata, matatanda, mga bakunado o hindi bakunado,” she added.
(It would be more valuable to observe whether it would affect not the transmission rate, but our admission rate. For example, whether those being admitted are children, elderly, vaccinated or unvaccinated.)
She then reiterated that even if health protocol changes are made, the importance of vaccines remains.
“Yun ‘yung dapat natin palakasin. It will be the vaccines that will help mitigate and reduce whatever negative impact the removal these layers of protection will have not just in our cases but especially in admissions and healthcare,” De Guzman said.
(That’s what we should strengthen. The vaccines will help mitigate and reduce whatever negative impact the removal of these layers of protection will have, not just in our cases but especially in admissions and healthcare.)
But when asked about the scientific basis for making face mask use voluntary, de Guzman answered: “Mahirap sabihin na may scientific basis (It is difficult to say that there is a scientific basis).”
During a Palace briefing on Tuesday, Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco disclosed that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is set to issue an executive order to wear face masks indoors voluntarily.
Marcos’ decision came more than a month after he issued a directive on the voluntary wearing of face masks outdoors.
Frasco, however, said mandatory use of face masks would remain in public transportation, medical transportation, and medical facilities. She also said wearing a face mask would still be “highly encouraged” for people unvaccinated against COVID-19, persons with comorbidities, and senior citizens.
The DOH, for its part, said it would await the official guidance issued by Malacañang without explicitly saying whether it was for or against the soon-to-be-relaxed policy on face mask use.
It again reminded the public that more layers of protection mean more protection against COVID-19. It further stressed the importance of assessing one’s risk when removing their face masks, especially with the upcoming Undas and Christmas season, where transmission rates are expected to increase.
Last week, the DOH reported the local transmission of the “highly immune-evasive” XBB Omicron subvariant and XBC variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the severe respiratory illness COVID-19.
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