MANILA — The government is banking on the public's adherence to COVID-19 protocols and strengthened booster vaccination drive to ensure that coronavirus infections in the country remain manageable amid the possible easing of the face mask rule, officials said Wednesday.
It is important for government agencies and local government units to craft measures that would increase the uptake of COVID-19 boosters, Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles said in a press briefing during which she announced the COVID-19 task force's recommendation to make the wearing of face masks optional in outdoor settings nationwide.
Only 18.3 million of the 72.6 million fully vaccinated people in the country have already gotten their booster shot, information from the DOH showed.
"Sa iba't ibang ahensya, mayroon silang target for implementation ng booster policy. Bahala ang mga ahensya magrekomenda for encouragement or incentives sa mga nagpapa-booster," Cruz-Angeles said.
In explaining the planned easing of the face mask rule in the country, Cruz-Angeles said the elderly sector and people with health risks are encouraged to still wear the protective gear.
"Ulitin natin na outdoors ito. Ito ay nagiging optional in open spaces or non-crowded outdoor areas with good ventilation," she said.
In the same press briefing, Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos indicated that it is only the Philippines and Myanmar among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states that continue to implement mandatory mask mandates in outdoor areas.
He said the rise in COVID-19 cases in ASEAN nations with relaxed face mask rules for outdoor settings was not significant.
The data he shared showed that countries dropping their virus mask mandates have increased tourist arrivals, while fresh COVID-19 cases somehow decreased.
"Talagang hindi naman ganoon kalaki ang diperensya, 'yung kasong tumaas. Ang importante lang ay sundan natin ang protocols na iminumungkahi ngayon ng IATF," Abalos said.
"Basta't nasa labas at may hangin, puwede nang walang mask. Pero make sure na 'yung mga immunocompromised, mga senior citizen, mga bata ay pag-ingatan muna natin. This is optional. We should also have that responsibility," he said.
He reminded the public to maintain social distancing and frequently wash their hands even as the easing of the face mask rule looms.
It is important for members of the vulnerable sector to get their booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine and wear their masks even if this has become optional, said Abalos.
Video from PTV
WHAT THE PALACE SAID
Cruz-Angeles said President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. is "optimistic" about the potential easing of the face mask mandate.
Marcos is balancing the interests of public health and economy, she said.
"Dalawa ang interes na binabalanse ng pangulo rito. May mga studies na nagpiprisinte ng direct correlation between sa removal of mandatory mask mandate at saka pagtaas ng turismo," the Press Secretary said.
"On the other hand, hindi tayo basta-basta maaaring magbago ng ating health protocols nang wala tayong back-up plan. And the back-up plan... is to make sure that people are also boostered," she added.
The President will articulate his policy or modification of the rule when it gets submitted to him, she said. Health officer-in-charge Ma. Rosario Vergeire during the same briefing said an executive order on this needs to be issued by Marcos even though he had verbally approved the recommendation.
The policy is meant for individuals who are low-risk for COVID-19 and are in low-risk settings, the official said.
"Ibig sabihin po, ni-liberalize natin iyong paggamit ng mask sa outdoors, pero doon sa low-risk na individuals - meaning, hindi sila matanda, hindi sila immunocompromised; and low-risk setting - ibig sabihin, doon sa mga areas na hindi matao at saka maayos ang kanilang hangin."
Infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante had said it is not yet time to lift the mask mandate due to the continuing COVID-19 transmission amid the detection of subvariants, and the country’s low booster uptake.
Solante described the move as "dangerous". He noted that mobility restrictions had been lifted anyway, allowing people to leave their homes already.
Relaxing the mask rule might send a message to the public that COVID-19 is no longer a threat and they could disregard health standards, he said. Solante is also concerned this would affect the country's efforts in increasing the booster coverage.