MANILA — A former adviser to the government's COVID-19 response warned Sunday of a possible surge in infections in the Visayas and Mindanao after Typhoon Odette forced hundreds of thousands to stay in evacuation centers, exposing them to the risk of getting the virus.
Dr. Tony Leachon said it is important to monitor the COVID-19 situation in the country's two major island groups in the coming weeks, noting as well the low vaccination rates there.
"Puwede kang magkaroon ng violation ng social distancing measures, kasi kung nasa evacuation centers sila, hindi natin masisisi kung ang sanitation at face mask ay hindi kumpleto," Leachon said in an interview with ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo.
(You can have a violation of social distancing measures, because if they are in the evacuation centers, you can't blame them if sanitation and face mask are insufficient.)
"So ang babantayan nating mga kababayan, dahil mababa ang vaccination rate ng Visayas and Mindanao, ay ang pag-surge ng COVID," he said.
(So what we should watch out for, because of the low vaccination rate in the Visayas and Mindanao, is a possible COVID surge.)
To avoid a rise in cases, local officials should put up separate tents for evacuees, provide more face masks and alcohol, and conduct rapid antigen testing, Leachon advised.
People with flu-like symptoms should immediately consult with local physicians so they can be isolated, he added.
Leachon also called for COVID-19 vaccination in areas that were struck by Typhoon Odette.
"Kunyari naka-settle down na sila sa evacuation center, dapat isa ito sa gawin natin, na magpabakuna para sa ganoon, hindi magkalat ang COVID cases diyan," he said.
(Once they settle down in evacuation centers, this is one thing that we should do, have them vaccinated so COVID will no longer spread.)
Leachon urged the public to remain vigilant, especially after the country reported its first cases of the highly infectious omicron variant of COVID-19.
While omicron is considered a mild strain of the virus, it can still pose threats for senior citizens, people with comorbidities and the unvaccinated, he said.
"Puwede pa naman madala natin 'yong infection at maihawa natin to our household members na unvaccinated," he said.
(We can still get the infection and pass it to our household members who are unvaccinated.)
"'Pagka nakapasok, it's just a matter of time na kakalat siya. Kasi, based on history, dun sa atin sa orignal Wuhan strain sa January of 2020... ang tawag nila, index cases; tapos ganun din yung delta, sometime in April and then kumalat din sila. So, kakalat din yan (omicron). Ang next two weeks ay critical kasi alam natin, ang incubation period," he added.
(Once it enters, it's just a matter of time for it to spread. Based on history, the virus spread after the original Wuhan strain, or the index cases, were confirmed in January 2020, and after the delta variant was first detected sometime in April this year. So, this [omicron] will really spread also. The next two weeks is critical because we know it's the incubation period.)
The country confirmed its first omicron cases last Wednesday in a Filipino man who arrived from Japan, and a Nigerian man who came from his home country.
All eight close contacts of the two tested negative for COVID-19, the Department of Health said.
The World Health Organization classified omicron as a variant of concern late November. It has so far reached 78 countries, including the Philippines.
The WHO said last Friday that the omicron variant is "very likely" to replace the delta variant as the dominant COVID-19 lineage in the Philippines.
The country has so far recorded a total of 2,847,555 confirmed COVID-19 cases, as of Saturday, of which, 9,924 are active. The positivity rate stood at 0.9 percent.
According to the government's latest vaccination report, some 43.35 million individuals have already been fully inoculated against COVID-19, while more than 56.1 million others have received their first dose, as of Dec. 17.
More than 1 million booster doses have also been administered.
The government aims to fully vaccinate at least 54 million people this year as the country hopes to achieve herd immunity against the respiratory disease.