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Superworried about a superspreader event

/ 04:03 AM January 11, 2021

This weekend, American physician Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke at a virtual conference addressing performance arts professionals. He told the audience that theaters, especially those outfitted with proper air filters and good ventilation, might be able to open with relatively few precautions in the fall of 2021.

Doctor Fauci did caution that this level of recovery would only be possible if the United States sticks to the timeline: That is, if vaccine rollouts happen as intended and if an appropriate level of caution is exercised in the meantime as the population builds an acceptable level of herd immunity. Considering that the United States is a country whose coronavirus response has been resisted by pockets of

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anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiment, the statement is a particularly brave one to make. The prediction, even with its reservations, struck me anyway as one of the most optimistic ones made recently by any prominent medical professional, and coming from infectious disease expert Doctor Fauci, it’s enough to give people—particularly those in industries that have been brought to their knees by COVID-19—a bit of cautious hope.

Our local situation, with the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, inspires no such hope. Recent news has made it increasingly clear that the idea of COVID-19 vaccine rollout being done in a prompt, equitable, transparent, and logically prioritized way is nothing short of a dream. We also continue to be harmed by inadequate support from government regarding longstanding and sound recommendations on limiting mass gatherings, social distancing, and proper mask-wearing.

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The most recent instance, of course, is the feast of the Black Nazarene. In previous years the celebration attracted more than a million faithful and it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that, unless strict warnings and protocols were in place, Filipinos would again flock to the streets for the event. The numbers this weekend exceeded the worst expectations: News outlets claim that a cumulative number of 400,000 individuals gathered in the Quiapo district, in an event whose far-reaching consequences should have been anticipated and prevented.

Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso tweeted his thanks to devotees who supposedly heeded calls to follow public health protocols and social distancing, attaching photos of individuals filed into formation. But this is not the whole picture; other photos and video clips of the event clearly showed crowds clumped together at different times. Face masks covered people’s chins and not their noses and mouths. Face shields for many were worn like decorative visors. Despite the gathering being made in open air, the dense crowds and loose adherence to proper mask-wearing behaviors have the potential to make the feast into a dreaded superspreader event, or one which results in high rates of transmission. As this column has bemoaned, coronavirus superspreader events have arisen from gatherings with as few as 80 to as many as 300 attendees. We should be preparing ourselves for the impact of this weekend’s mistakes. And mistakes they were. Despite the fact that we are no longer under the strictest of lockdowns, anticipating and preventing such a large gathering should have been a more stringent effort among leaders and local government. Furthermore, the mixed messaging that followed—the photos from news outlets and government officials stating that public health protocols were followed—was also a mistake. It is unacceptable that a mass gathering of such an extreme size should be reported with anything other than caution and full accuracy. Now, as expected, health authorities are appealing to the thousands of faithful to monitor themselves and self-quarantine following the event. It would take nothing short of a miracle to expect all of them to comply, and the health system must once more brace itself for the impact of a lack of foresight and prudence.

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, Hints and Symbols, Kay Rivera, superspreader event
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