MANILA (UPDATE) — An infectious disease expert said Sunday he is in favor of delaying the further easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the country amid the looming threat of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Dr. Rontgene Solante said he prefers an extension of the COVID-19 Alert Level 2 imposition, scheduled to end on Wednesday, Dec. 15, in most parts of the country, until the end of the month.
"Personally, I really would agree if the government will still extend the Alert Level 2 until the end of December because what we need now is really making people assured na wala tayong omicron variant," Solante said in an interview with ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo.
(Personally, I really would agree if the government will still extend the Alert Level 2 until the end of December because what we need now is really making people feel assured that we don't have a case of the omicron variant.)
The Philippines has yet to report a case of the omicron variant, which was first detected in South Africa.
Prior to the confirmation by the World Health Organization of the omicron as a new COVID-19 variant of concern late last month, some sectors and officials have suggested the downgrade by December of the alert to Level 1, particularly in Metro Manila, following weeks of declining new cases.
But with the detection and spread of the new variant in several countries, retaining Metro Manila, home to around 13.5 million people and which accounts for a third of the national GDP, under Alert Level 2 is the "most prudent" option, said Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion.
The 5-step alert system, which comes with granular lockdown impositions, has been implemented starting mid-September in a bid to revive business activities while still curbing the spread of COVID-19. It replaced the previous four-level quarantine classifications.
Under the Department of Health's (DOH) guidelines, the following are allowed in areas under Alert Level 2:
- events, meetings and gatherings in select venues
- opening of tourist attractions such as amusement parks, museums, galleries, exhibits, parks, plazas, public gardens, scenic viewpoints
- open cinemas and movie houses with limited capacity
- limited face-to-face or in-person classes subject to prior approval of the Office of the President
Establishments are permitted to operate at a maximum of 50 percent indoor capacity for fully vaccinated individuals and those below 18, even if unvaccinated, and 70 percent outdoor capacity.
Ahead of the coming holiday season, there is a need to remind Filipinos that the infectious delta variant continues to spread in the country, Solante said.
Solante, head of San Lazaro Hospital's Adult Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Department, said he believes that omicron would not cause a surge in cases, unlike when delta variant was detected.
Metro Manila is prepared for the new variant, given its high vaccination rate, he said.
"I'm fully confident with that," Solante said, referring to Metro Manila being more protected against omicron.
As experts continued to study if omicron could dodge COVID-19 vaccine protections, it is still better for the unvaccinated to get their jabs and for the fully vaccinated to receive booster shots, said Solante.
"Ang advocacy pa rin natin, it's better to be vaccinated rather than not be vaccinated dahil mayroon ka pa ring antibody for protection," he said.
(Our advocacy is it's still better to be vaccinated rather than not be vaccinated because you still antibodies for protection.)
An official from the World Health Organization earlier said it was "highly unlikely" for the omicron variant to fully dodge protection offered by current COVID-19 vaccines.
A recent study in Israel found that a three-shot course of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccines provided significant protection against omicron.
The Philippines has fully vaccinated more than 39.5 million people as of Dec. 8, accounting for 51.28 percent of the target population of 77.1 million, according to the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group.
More than 54 million others have received their first dose of the vaccine.
The government aims to fully vaccinate at least 54 million by the end of the year.
The Philippines on Saturday logged a positivity rate of 1.1 percent, the lowest since data became available, as the country confirmed 356 more cases of COVID-19.
Of the country's 2,836,360 total reported infections so far, 11,373 were considered active cases, the Department of Health said.