MANILA (UPDATE) - The Department of Health (DOH) plans to add COVID-19 vaccines to those already part of its regular immunization program, the agency said Saturday.
This move is part of a review of its policies to increase penetration of vaccines and boosters more than 2 years into the COVID-19 pandemic and at the start of a new administration.
While a head for the department has yet to be appointed by Pres. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the National COVID-19 Vaccination Operations Center (NVOC) will continue to operate and administer shots in vaccination sites all over the country, the DOH said.
"NVOC is also reviewing existing policies to identify possible points for revision, one of which is the integration of covid 19 vaccines to routine immunization," the department said in a written statement responding to media queries.
Among the vaccine-preventable diseases being addressed by current government immunization drives are polio, measles, pneumonia, rabies, tuberculosis, and hepatitis B.
The shift is seen as a move to help address vaccine hesitancy, particularly on boosters, and ensure many Filipinos remain protected against the coronavirus.
"If we’re really saying this is endemic, then it should be routine. And the way this should be managed should be like a program. Like every year you have to vaccinate X million people. That’s how it’s going to be,” Dr. Susan Pineda-Mercado, adjunct faculty of the University of the Philippines-Manila-National Institutes of Health National Telehealth Center, said at a UP online forum on Friday
The DOH added it would use “granular and localized analysis” of areas with low 1st booster vaccine coverage and high unvaccinated numbers to focus its immunization efforts.
Health experts are pointing to the slow uptick in boosters as a factor in the increase of COVID-19 cases in the country in previous days, along with relaxed implementation of minimum health protocols.
Only 2 out of 10 Filipinos who have been fully vaccinated (or 15 million out of nearly 71 million) have received their boosters as of July 1, data from the DOH COVID-19 vaccine tracker showed.
For many in the public, there is no urgency to receive boosters upon reaching 3 to 6 months from their second dose.
Others, like Charlie Telewik, who got his second dose in 2021, were influenced by misinformation about the safety of vaccines.
“Ngayon 'di na ako nagpa-booster shot. Dahil lang siguro sa mga tao kasi, 'yung mga balita na magkasakit, lalabas doon, may namamatay, kaya natakot din ako, kaya ayoko na sa booster shot. Tama na sa akin ang second dose kasi sa panahon ngayon, parang okay na," he said.
However, he said he would be open to taking shots if it is required by government or the company he works for.
For Dr. Albert Domingo, director of the DOH communication office and disease prevention and control bureau, health care workers must take the lead in getting boosted first.
Only half of fully-vaccinated health workers, or 1.4 million out of 3 million in the A1 category, have received boosters.
"Kung mismong ang mga healthcare worker ang hindi pa nagpapa-first booster, paano pa natin ipu-push na parang kailangan lahat tayo magpa-booster at the general. So this is actually what is facing us now and the challenge really is there isn’t really a lot sense of urgency," Domingo said.
‘TAKE RISK SERIOUSLY’
Dr. Jubert Benedicto, pulmonologist head of the CCU-Management Action Team at the Philippine General Hospital, reminded the public that they need to still take the risk of infection seriously.
"We may be you know, undermining the effects of COVID… Remember the vaccine is quite effective in terms of the severe, critical forms—but it does not protect us in terms of transmitting the virus once you get it," he said.
"Kinakabahan ako sa ganyang line of thinking: 'Trangkaso lang ‘to mawawala lang 'to'. E 'pag umuwi ka ng bahay, let's face it. Baka nga magtanggal ka pa ng mask, makihalubilo ka sa pamilya mo. Paano kung may vulnerable population doon?" he added.
DOH technical advisory group member Dr. Edsel Salvana said Sunday that older or immunocompromised COVID-19 patients could still face complications, such as one who got a stroke after being admitted and testing negative on the 7th day.
"COVID-19 doesn't just attack the lungs. It also makes your blood clot a lot. We see people with heart attacks and strokes during or shortly after infection even if they only have mild COVID-19 symptoms," Salvana wrote in a Facebook post.
"This is why we still have to protect the most vulnerable from infection, even if we expect it to be mild."