DOH not keen on mask mandate return
MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Health (DOH) is not endorsing the return of a mask mandate despite soaring cases of COVID-19 in the country, as such a “knee-jerk reaction” may not bode well for the economy, the agency’s officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said on Tuesday.
In fact, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), headed by the DOH, is already preparing to present a “pandemic exit plan” to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Vergeire said.
On Sunday, Marcos suggested that the government might reimpose mandatory masking but added he would wait for a recommendation from the DOH and the IATF.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Vergeire said the government could not afford to have such “low tolerance” for COVID-19 surges that “we resort to knee-jerk reactions like reinstating compulsory masking and lockdown,” every time cases would rise.
The Philippines “cannot go back and forth with [COVID-19] policies” because it will adversely affect various sectors of the economy, she said.
“We have recommended to the Office of the President, based on the agreement from IATF [meetings], that there is no need to bring back the [mask] mandate,” said Vergeire.
This, she said, is the manner by which “we can manage and move forward from this situation.”
After three years of the pandemic, an individual should already know one’s level of risk when it comes to COVID-19, and therefore, should know when and where they need to wear face masks, she added.
At the same time, the DOH continues to encourage highly vulnerable members of the population, such as the elderly, immunocompromised, those with comorbidities, unvaccinated and pregnant women, to wear masks, especially in crowded areas, enclosed spaces with no proper ventilation, Vergeire said.
The DOH’s position on masking, she said, was in line with the recommendations of the IATF last week to the president.
Discussions among members of the IATF, the advisory body on the government’s pandemic response, included crafting the “pandemic exit plan” and possibly other new measures in the country’s COVID-19 response.
But COVID-19 transmission in the country showed no signs of slowing down as reported infections in the past week soared by nearly 50 percent, according to the latest case bulletin of the DOH.
The health department on Tuesday reported 4,456 new cases from April 24 to April 30, bringing the daily average to 637. This is higher by 42 percent from an average of 450 cases in the previous week.
The current average has also already exceeded the DOH projection that COVID-19 infections would peak at 611 cases per day until June. The forecast was made by DOH’s FASSSTER team, composed of disease surveillance experts.
Hospital utilization rates, however, remained low, with COVID-19 cases occupying 15 percent of the allotted intensive care unit (ICU) beds and 18.1 percent in non-ICU beds.
Severe and critical infections slightly inched up to 351, which is 8 percent of total COVID-19 admissions nationwide, from 345 cases a week ago. There were no reported deaths for the same period.
Separate monitoring by the data analytics group OCTA Research showed “high” seven-day positivity rates on April 29 in four provinces: Camarines Sur (39.7 percent), Rizal (28.5 percent), Cavite (28.1 percent) and Laguna (21.2 percent).
In Metro Manila, the positivity rate jumped further to 17.2 percent, way above the 5-percent threshold recommended by the World Health Organization.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Rontgene Solante earlier said the country remained “in stable condition, even with this increase in cases.”
Still, health experts urged the public, especially vulnerable individuals, to keep their masks on to “maximize” the protection it provides against COVID-19 and other contagious diseases.
On Sunday, speaking with reporters on a flight to the United States, President Marcos said the government would need to consider whether another mask mandate was necessary.
“Although the rate of increase is growing, the baseline of where it started is just low, so hopefully we’re still going to be able to [control] it,” he said.
Marcos also said the government might have to carry out another vaccination drive targeting the younger population.
In September last year, Marcos scrapped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors upon the IATF’s recommendation.
The next month, he allowed the voluntary use of face masks indoors except in public transportation and health facilities.