First, the good news: Latest figures from the Department of Health (DOH) indicate a marked decrease in the number of new COVID-19 infections, with 3,218 cases on Wednesday, the lowest since May. The more contagious Delta variant had seen as many as 26,000 daily cases in September.
The virus’ reproduction rate, meanwhile—the number of people that a single positive case can infect—had dropped to 0.46 on Oct. 22, from 0.59 the previous week, according to OCTA Research.
A September survey by OCTA released last week also showed that 61 percent or six out of 10 Filipinos are now willing to get their jabs against the virus, a significant climb from the results of a similar poll conducted in July by Pulse Asia, which indicated a 43 percent vaccine acceptance (or four out of 10 individuals) among respondents.
Minors aged 12 to 17 with comorbidities outside the National Capital Region (NCR) are set to get vaccinated starting Nov. 3, according to vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. Already, a total of 9,928 adolescents with health conditions have had their shots since pediatric vaccination began on Oct. 15, the DOH said Monday.
But, cautioned health experts and authorities, all these encouraging signs don’t mean we’re already out of the woods. Complacency and negligence could yet reverse the country’s slowly improving health prospects. While cases are on the downtrend, the DOH noted that the virus has developed new variants. The latest—detected in a “34-year-old male” with travel history from the United Arab Emirates—has stirred fears over other variants that the expected holiday rush might inadvertently bring home.
And while purchased vaccines continue to arrive, they have yet to reach those who need them most, among them the more vulnerable elderly population. World Health Organization representative to the Philippines Rabindra Abeyasinghe reminded the government that there are 3.4 million elderly who remain unvaccinated and that, in many regions in the country, only 30 to 40 percent of the most vulnerable have had their shots.
Many workers, too, have found themselves in a bind, desperately waiting for months for a vaccine schedule from their local government unit while trying to make sense of conflicting messages from the labor department and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) on the “no vaccine, no pay” policy.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III had earlier stressed that vaccination was not mandatory for all workers and that “Non-vaccination is not a legal basis [for dismissal].” Last week, however, he cited an IATF resolution to say there was basis to withhold the pay of non-vaccinated staff and even to dismiss those who refuse to get their shots in certain industries.
Bello’s position alarmed labor groups such as the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, which pointed out that “(n)othing in the guidelines on the alert level [system] says unvaccinated workers can be fired.” Labor lawyer and senatorial aspirant Sonny Matula protested that the IATF guidelines “misrepresented” Section 12 of Republic Act No. 11525, or the Act Establishing the COVID-19 Vaccination Program, which clearly states that vaccine cards “shall not be considered as an additional mandatory requirement for educational, employment and other similar government transaction purposes.”
Bello has since backtracked on his claim, but the vague or mixed signals continue. While the education department, for instance, announced that face-to-face classes are voluntary and that schools will still hold distance learning classes, the Commission on Higher Education’s (CHEd) position that “there is no mandatory vaccination required” for students attending limited face-to-face classes is not exactly reassuring to parents still wary of sending their children to such classes, which resume Nov. 15 in low-risk areas.
Instead of mandatory shots, CHEd chair Prospero de Vera III said it was more important “to convince students and faculty to be vaccinated.” Is the government moving fast enough on that front, to maximize the rising vaccine acceptability among the public per the OCTA Research survey?
A recent Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs survey looked into why nearly half of Filipinos who indicated they were willing to get jabbed were still unvaccinated. Health authorities would do well to look into the reasons cited by those surveyed last Sept. 16-30: About 46 percent of Filipinos said they couldn’t get vaccine appointments to proceed with their shots. Other difficulties brought up include “couldn’t get the type of vaccine wanted; difficulty traveling to site, or leaving school or work; lack of required documents; technical difficulties with website or phone line; and information not available in native language.” Food for thought for Malacañang.
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