]MANILA - The Philippines currently ranks second behind Indonesia in Southeast Asia in terms of confirmed COVID-19 deaths, with more than 57,000 fatalities based on information from the Philippine Department of Health (DOH).
In terms of cumulative confirmed COVID-19 cases, the Philippines is behind Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia with a total under 4 million. Since late 2020, the Philippines had the second highest total but was overtaken by Vietnam and Malaysia in March. There was an increase in cases observed in major ASEAN economies in recent weeks except for the Philippines, which had an earlier Omicron surge.
Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia however have been testing more aggressively. There was a call for mass testing since the early days of the pandemic in the Philippines, but it has never reached more than 100,000 tests in a day.
It remains relatively expensive to test in the Philippines and this has made testing demand-driven, where the number of tests usually go up during a surge. Recently, testing is back to below 30,000 daily as cases decline. Without aggressive testing, the accuracy of the data on the actual number of COVID-19 cases and deaths will be less than optimal.
COVID-19 cases are in decline following the fourth and most severe spike in the Philippines to date. The Omicron variant forced daily cases up from just 168 on December 21st to 2,961 on December 31st.
Prior to that there were three other spikes. There was the spike in August 2020 when the Philippines first relaxed its COVID-19 lockdown, the March to April 2021 spike driven by the Alpha variant first identified in the United Kingdom, and the August to September 2021 spike driven by the Delta variant first identified in India.
Omicron, first identified in South Africa, was the worst by far in terms of infections. The rate of increase in cases caused by Omicron is unprecedented in ABS-CBN Data Analytics Chief Edson Guido’s tracking of Philippine COVID-19 data.
The most COVID-19 cases confirmed in a day in the Philippines was also attributed to Omicron, with the record high of 39,004 hit on January 15, 2022. Fortunately, that surge followed the track of most Omicron related surges abroad, sharply declining after an equally abrupt surge. The Philippines is once again back to reporting cases in the hundreds daily.
That sharp decline in cases has pulled down the Philippines’ positivity rate as well. It is now back below the World Health Organization’s benchmark of 5 percent in March. The Philippines was able to meet the benchmark for at least two weeks last December 2021 after more than a year of being unable to do so. There were days during that time when the positivity rate would even drop below 1 percent. Omicron reversed the trend, pushing up the positivity rate to a peak of 48 percent on January 11th, before falling back down to where it is today.
Another big reason for the Philippines’ recent success in fighting COVID is vaccination. The Philippines started its vaccine rollout on March 1, 2021. More than a year later, 64 million Filipinos are now fully vaccinated, equivalent to 57 percent of the country's total population. This however is below the Philippines’ original target for 2021 of 77 million Filipinos, covering 70 percent of the total population.
In terms of booster shots, 10.7 million Filipinos have received theirs accounting for less than 10 percent of the Philippine population. There has also been a recorded slowdown in the pace of the vaccine rollout in recent weeks.
The occupancy of Intensive Care Unit or ICU beds allocated for COVID-19 patients is another data point used to track the Philippines’ progress against the pandemic. As of March 4, only 26 percent of such beds in the Philippines are occupied. All of the regions in the Philippines have also reverted back to the safe zone, defined by the Philippine Department of Health as below 60 percent occupancy.
Disturbingly, there is evidence to show a sizable chunk of COVID-19 fatalities never got appropriate hospital care.
The data however has yet to be updated, and there is anecdotal evidence Filipinos are now less averse to seeking hospital care.
The Department of Health itself is now trying to move on from the pandemic. One of the steps it has taken is to shift its COVID-19 case bulletin releases from daily to weekly. This started on March 7th. The data contained in the bulletin has also changed to focus on bed utilization, severe and critical admissions, and vaccination. Daily and total cases, deaths, recoveries, active cases, daily testing and positivity rate are no longer available in the weekly format.
Guido has all of the daily case bulletins available for reference on Twitter.
Economists and health experts have been using mobility data as a means to gauge whether or not conditions are back to normal. Google mobility trends based on data from Our World in Data show that the number of visitors in grocery and pharmacy stores, parks, retail and recreation has already returned to the pre-pandemic baseline in the Philippines. The number of people in workplaces is very close to the pre-pandemic level as well. Whether or not this means the pandemic is over remains to be seen.
It is important to note how the Philippines got to this point. There are many to thank: the frontliners working tirelessly at testing centers, hospitals, and quarantine facilities; the frontliners of data collection for both private and public information initiatives; the frontliners of food and key supply distribution and logistics hubs; the frontliners of government enforcing quarantines and travel restrictions; and the frontliners of media working to disseminate important information to the public. All of these individuals helped the Philippines survive the last two years.
The pandemic however is not yet over. Cases are spiking in different countries, including Vietnam and other Asian nations in close proximity to the Philippines. Most of the rosy data points shared above are up to date based on the latest available DOH Data Drop, dated March 5, 2022. Vigilance is key.