PH airports, seaports on alert for ‘Flirt’ variant of COVID-19 virus

ENTRY QUEUE Chinese tourists queue at the immigration counters upon arrival at Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1 in this photo taken in January 2023. The Department of Health has ordered tighter health screenings in the Philippines’ borders and gateways to prevent the spread of the “FLiRT” variant of COVID-19 that has been reported circulating in several countries. —GRIG C. MONTEGRANDE

ENTRY QUEUE The Department of Health has ordered tighter health screenings in the Philippines’ borders and gateways to prevent the spread of the “Flirt” variant of COVID-19 that has been reported to be circulating in several countries. —Photo by Grig C. Montegrande of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines — The country’s airports and seaports have been placed on “heightened” alert to “thoroughly” screen foreigners or Filipinos coming from countries with reported cases of the new “Flirt” variants of COVID-19.

The Department of Health (DOH) on Monday confirmed that its Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) issued Bureau Memorandum No. 2024-48 dated May 24, stating that “all stations have been directed to conduct thorough screening at Points of Entry for arriving visitors originating from countries where COVID FLiRT incidents have been detected.”

READ: DOH on COVID-19 FLiRT: It may be here now but ‘the variant isn’t serious’

Health Secretary Teodoro Herbosa directed the BOQ to “conduct screening for symptoms of COVID-19, among others,” the DOH spokesperson, Assistant Secretary Albert Domingo, said.

The memo, however, did not specify the countries of origin of travelers to be subjected to a screening.

Based on news reports, Flirt variants have been detected in Singapore, Thailand, India, China, Hong Kong, Nepal, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and 14 countries in Europe, including the United Kingdom.

READ: High-risk groups warned vs new COVID variants

Flirt (or FLiRT) is an acronym coined from the technical names of the mutations that caused the family of new COVID-19 variants, usually with lineage names starting with KP or JN.

There are four new variants under monitoring by the World Health Organization (WHO), namely JN.1.7, JN.1.18, KP.2 and KP.3. All these are descendants of JN.1, an offshoot of the Omicron variant.

The WHO designation signals public health authorities that a COVID-19 variant may require prioritized attention and monitoring.

E-travel forms

The BOQ reminded travelers to complete the health questionnaire on their e-travel application. It also advised travelers with COVID-19 symptoms to isolate themselves in their homes.

Herbosa and other DOH officials are in Geneva, Switzerland, to attend the 77th World Health Assembly, an annual meeting of health ministers around the world.

They are set to finalize an agreement on how countries will best handle the next pandemic. The DOH chief earlier said he would not endorse border controls or travel restrictions amid a spike of COVID-19 cases worldwide, believed to be driven by the Flirt variants.

The DOH has eased quarantine and isolation protocols for COVID-19 patients, following the lifting of the state of public health emergency in the country by President Marcos on July 21, 2023.

Under the DOH’s Department Circular No. 2023-0324, only those who have confirmed COVID-19 cases are required to be isolated.

For those with mild symptoms or who are asymptomatic, the DOH advises a five-day home isolation or until they become fever-free for at least 24 hours without taking medicines. This may be shortened on the advice of a doctor.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 patients with moderate to severe symptoms or immunocompromised are required to isolate for at least 10 days. They also need to check with their doctors if they need to be admitted to a hospital.

5 deaths, 7 critical

The DOH has yet to confirm if Flirt variants have been detected in the country, pending a biosurveillance report from the Philippine Genome Center of the University of the Philippines, which conducts whole-genome sequencing on swab samples of COVID-19 patients.

For Herbosa, it was “possible” that the new COVID-19 variants were already spreading locally and causing the uptick in reported cases, but assured the public it was “not serious.”

From May 7 to May 13, the DOH recorded 877 new COVID-19 cases, with an average of 125 cases reported per day. Out of these, seven had severe or critical disease.

Five deaths were recorded, which occurred in recent weeks, from April 30 to May 13.

“While there is an observed increase recently, it is small and lower than previously observed increases,” the agency said.

The management of the country’s main gateway, Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia), said it supported the DOH-BOQ memo screening travelers for the Flirt variant.

In a statement on Monday, Eric Ines, the general manager of the Manila International Airport Authority, urged those going to any of Naia’s four terminals to follow basic health protocols, such as frequent hand-washing and wearing a face mask if experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Ines, however, clarified that wearing masks inside the airport remained voluntary.

PhilHealth wards

At the House of Representatives, Agri party list Rep. Wilbert Lee called on the DOH to require hospitals to put notices at the entrance disclosing the facility’s bed occupancy rate and the availability of Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) wards.

“The availability of PhilHealth wards and charity beds in accredited hospitals is essential information for beneficiaries to make informed decisions about their health-care options,” Lee said in filing House Resolution No. 1716.

“The lack of clear and visible information regarding the availability of PhilHealth wards may lead to confusion and hinder beneficiaries from utilizing their PhilHealth benefits effectively,” he added. —with a report from Jeannette I. Andrade