MANILA (UPDATE) - The public should not dismiss the omicron variant as a mild disease, the Department of Health (DOH) said Tuesday as it reminded that the delta variant was still circulating.
The omicron variant has been found to be milder than delta, which is 3 times more likely to hospitalize a patient than the former, according to Dr. Edsel Salvaña, member of the DOH-technical advisory group (TAG).
"We're not calling omicron mild. It is milder than delta, delta is 3 times more likely to land you in the hospital compared with omicron but omicron can still land you in the hospital," he told reporters.
The omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta as it has 30 mutations on the spike protein which allows it to invade cells, the DOH earlier said.
"The more transmissible it is, the more that it affects our healthcare system as well and we're seeing that right now with the affectation of our healthcare workers," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said.
It is important for the elderly and other vulnerable sectors to get tested and consult a doctor so they can be given antivirals that "further decrease their hospitalization," Salvaña said.
"For the vast population that is not at high-risk and are vaccinated, the risk of dying is very low," he added.
"It is important to isolate so we can slow down the spread of the disease and minimize societal impact."
Variants may also cause immune escape, according to Dr. John Wong, following some experts' remark the omicron might become a "natural vaccine."
"Just because omicron looks like other variants, we cannot be assured it can generate immunity against other variants kasi (because) omicron is a virus, it’s not a vaccine," he said.
"With vaccines, we can adjust the doses. With a virus like omicron, if you receive too little of the virus, you don’t generate immunity at all. If you get too large a dose of the virus, you end up in the hospital. We shouldn't belittle the effect of omicron in the country," Wong explained.
DELTA VARIANT STILL CIRCULATING
The country's epidemic curve is "indicative of the omicron variant" but the "delta variant is still circulating," according to Vergeire.
"The case doubling time of the current surge (2 days) and the decreased hospitalization rate in NCR (National Capital Region), which is highly vaccinated, is consistent with omicron. We haven't done enough sequencing to confirm that the current surge is omicron-driven. It could still be both a delta resurgence and an omicron surge," Wong added.
The country's healthcare utilization rate is at 40 percent for ward beds and 38 percent for intensive care units, Vergeire said.
"In NCR, ward beds is nearing moderate threshold. 'Di po ito nakakabahala (it's not concerning) compared when we were having the delta experience," she said.
Currently, a bigger proportion of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are incidental, or those hospitalized for other reasons and later found out they had the virus, according to the spokesperson.
Some 88.7 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients from Dec. 25 to Jan. 7 were incidental while 11.3 percent were admitted for the coronavirus, Vergeire said.
This is in contrast to 46.1 percent incidental COVID-19 patients and 53.9 coronavirus-admitted patients during the peak of delta cases from Sep. 5 to 18, she added.
RAMP UP VACCINATION
Areas in Visayas and Mindanao must ramp up vaccination rates as Metro Manila's 75 percent jab rate is the one protecting it from high hospitalization rate, according to Wong and Salvaña.
"I think we're giving omicron too much credit. Ang talagang star is our vaccination rate. Kahit omicron ito, kung mababa ang vaccination rate natin, we would still be seeing increases in critical and severe [cases]," Salvaña said.
"It really is our vaccination that is saving lives and that is why we're concerned 'pag lumipat itong omicron na ito sa provinces na mababa pa ang (that if omicron arrives in provinces with low) vaccination rate, they will get into real trouble."
It is important for people eligible for vaccination to get the jab as those in their household unable to get it, like children below 5 years old, will also benefit, said Dr. Anna Ong-Lim, a pediatrician and a member also of DOH-TAG.
"That protection will not only benefit you but all the vulnerable members of your household," she said.
Nearly 85 percent of those hospitalized for COVID-19 were unvaccinated, while 80 percent of virus-related deaths were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated as of Dec. 28, Vergeire said.
The public is urged to immediately isolate when they experience symptoms, get tested for COVID-19 if accessible, and consult a doctor through telemedicine to not congest hospitals, she added.