MANILA (UPDATE) — A health expert on Sunday urged the government to extend the quarantine period for travelers coming into the Philippines and ban flights from more countries due to the threat of a new and potentially more contagious COVID-19 variant.
Dr. Tony Leachon, a former adviser to the government's COVID-19 response, said the country should consider bringing back a 14-day quarantine period for travelers as a measure against the spread of the Omicron variant in the country.
"Dapat iyan repasuhin at ibalik sa mas mahigpit na quarantine kasi itong ganitong mga variant, nagi-increase ang transmission nito," Dr. Tony Leachon told ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo, referring to the Inter-Agency Task Force's (IATF) policy on quarantine period.
(That policy should be revised. We should bring back the stricter quarantine because these variants increase the risk of transmission.)
Currently, travelers from "yellow list" territories who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 undergo a 3-day facility-based quarantine upon arrival in the Philippines, if they have a negative RT-PCR test result taken within 72 hours before departure.
These travelers are tested for COVID-19 on the third day, with the date of arrival considered the first day. They are discharged from facility quarantine after receiving a negative RT-PCR test.
Those without a negative RT-PCR test result need to stay in a facility-based quarantine until release of a negative test result, take a swab test on the 5th day upon arrival, and be on home quarantine for 10 days upon arrival.
Fully vaccinated Filipinos arriving from "green list" areas are not required to undergo a facility-based quarantine and on-arrival swab testing, if they present a negative RT-PCR test result taken within 72 hours before departure.
Those without a negative RT-PCR test result need to undergo on-arrival swab testing, facility-based quarantine until the release of a negative result, and self-monitoring for 14 days upon arrival.
Fully vaccinated foreigners coming from "green list" countries, meanwhile, are required to present a negative RT-PCR test result taken within 72 hours before departure, and undergo self-monitoring for 14 days upon arrival. They are not required to stay in facility-based quarantine and on-arrival swab testing.
Leachon said the Philippines should prioritize banning travelers from Hong Kong after the nearby territory detected a case of the Omicron variant. The city-state is in the government's "green list".
"I would probably ban muna ang Hong Kong kasi ang lapit-lapit lang niyan... at ang daming umuuwi na kababayan natin," he said.
(I would probably ban travelers from Hong Kong first because it's very near... We have a lot of Filipinos who are coming home from there.)
Philippine authorities are already mulling the possibility of banning travelers from Hong Kong, the Department of Health (DOH) said on Saturday, with Health Secretary Francisco Duque III saying that a recommendation has been sent to Malacanang.
The Philippines earlier suspended flights from South Africa, where the new variant was first detected, and those from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique.
Based on the latest IATF resolution, issued last Nov. 11, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are in the Philippines' green list. The other four are in the "yellow list".
For Leachon, the Philippines should take Israel, which banned all foreigners from entering its country, as its "role model" on border control amid the spread of the new variant.
Leachon said the country should remain under Alert Level 2 until the end of the year and only ease to Alert Level 1, if ever, in January.
The government should also speed up COVID-19 vaccination to prepare the population for a possible surge that may be prompted by the new variant, he added.
The Philippines has fully vaccinated nearly 35 million people, accounting for around 45 percent of its 77.1 million target for the country to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19. There are 44.5 million others who have received their first dose.
The Philippine Red Cross (PRC), meanwhile, said it was preparing in case the new variant is detected in the country.
The preparations include the purchase of additional personal protective gear, and strengthening of molecular labs and testing centers, PRC Chairman Sen. Richard Gordon said in a statement.
Gordon reminded the public to keep following health protocols.
"Social distancing and limited population movement are still the best defense to winning our war against Covid because (there are) breakthrough infections among [the] vaccinated," he said.
Gordon also urged people to get tested against COVID-19 because even those who are fully vaccinated can still get the virus and infect others.
The World Health Organization has classified Omicron as a "variant of concern," saying it may spread more quickly than other forms of the virus.
Preliminary evidence on the new variant suggests there is an increased risk of reinfection and there had been a "detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology," according to the WHO.