WHO cautions PH vs easing quarantine amid new COVID variants, vaccine delays

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 18 2021 12:43 PM | Updated as of Feb 18 2021 02:06 PM

Video courtesy of PTV

MANILA — The World Health Organization on Thursday said the Philippines might see an upsurge in COVID-19 cases if there is an overall easing of quarantine restrictions instead of targeted measures amid the threat of new variants while the country's vaccination program has yet to start.

“If we now go for large-scale relaxation of measures given the current existing situation and the circulation of variants and the fact it’ll still be many months before a large proportion of Filipinos are vaccinated, we may witness a situation where there’ll be an upsurge of cases and the overwhelming of the health (care system),” WHO Country Representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said during a briefing on state TV.

Asked to weigh in on the National Economic and Development Authority's (NEDA) suggestion to place the country under a lower quarantine classification and the reopening of cinemas and other establishments by March, Abeyasinghe pointed out that COVID-19 cases in the Philippines, including the National Capital Region, is still “plateauing.”

“It has not flattened yet and so we still need to be conscious of the fact that there is relatively high level of transmission in the community and that the situation is also complicated by the presence of new variants,” he said.

The WHO official said that while they understand the “significant economic burdens on sectors of the population… every measure needs to be carefully calibrated and decided upon before being implemented.”

He pointed out that the Philippines has been able to contain the spread of COVID-19 and avoid overwhelming the health system through restrictions.

“I believe firmly that we still need to maintain these restrictions. That doesn’t mean we cannot loosen up in areas where the economy will benefit,” he said.

He said such easing of restrictions should be “done in a very targeted manner” and with full understanding of the economic benefits and health risks.

Government has been looking at further easing quarantine restrictions, including in economic hub Metro Manila, even as the virus threat remains, in a bid to revive the economy dragged down by the pandemic. 

By mid-March, it would be a year since the Philippines first enforced quarantine restrictions to contain the virus. 

Abeyasinghe said the same for the global situation when asked if the decline in COVID-19 cases worldwide is due to the vaccination of people in other countries.

“Potentially it could be one of the factors. We also need to recognize that in many of the hotspots where the number of cases are surging they have implemented very strict movement restriction orders. This may be contributing to the decrease in transmission,” he said. 

“This decrease in transmission doesn’t mean the pandemic is over,” he added. “If we relax measures too early we see that the rebound happens very fast so we need to keep this in mind and we have to be very careful in relaxing those as we see transmission rates dropping (globally).”

The DOH earlier said it is monitoring the increase in cases in Region 7, Caraga, as well as 8 cities in Metro Manila. But it said the hospital utilization rate or occupancy of COVID-19 beds in the country, except in Agusan del Norte, is still within the safe zone.

The DOH attributed the increase in the said areas to the spread of COVID-19 during the holiday season as people attended family gatherings.

While the Philippines was supposed to receive its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines this week, the arrival was held back by delays in the indemnification agreement. It is still unclear when the first batch will arrive although the government is hoping to receive it within the month.

Under the indemnity deal, the national government will be responsible and shoulder the cost for possible adverse effects of COVID-19 vaccines on those inoculated.

The Philippines has lagged behind some of its regional neighbors in securing COVID-19 shots, with which it aims to vaccinate 70 million people or two-thirds of the population this year, starting in February.

Aside from Pfizer's initial batch, the Philippines expects to receive its first 600,000 doses of China's Sinovac coronavirus vaccine this month.

— with reports from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News