We’re not there yet
It’s only a little more than a month away from Christmas, and the Duterte administration is confident that the country’s fight against COVID-19 is headed in the right direction. The country recorded 1,409 new COVID-19 cases last Nov. 9, the lowest number since the 1,414 infections of Feb. 23.
Then it saw the daily positivity rate fall below 5 percent — the benchmark set by the World Health Organization (WHO) — for the first time since Jan. 31. These have been taken as encouraging signs to justify the government’s decision to loosen restrictions, particularly in the National Capital Region (NCR) — the epicenter of the pandemic in the country — which has been placed under alert level 2 since Nov. 5.
But then, the positivity rate rose again to above 5 percent last Friday — 5.5 percent — after two consecutive days of being below the threshold number. Thus, health experts are also warning that while the country is seeing improvement, it is hardly out of the COVID-19 crisis.
Lifting the lockdown to alert level 2 in NCR meant that children could finally go out of their homes after over a year of restrictions — a relief for parents, but also a cause for worry as malls and establishments are now seeing a surge in customers eager to finally regain some normalcy in their lives. The rush of people to the malls has underscored once again the lack of open spaces such as parks and playgrounds, particularly in Metro Manila, where parents can take their children.
Under alert level 2, most businesses are allowed to operate at up to 50 percent indoor capacity for fully-vaccinated individuals, and 70 percent for outdoor venue capacity. With establishments now enjoying more leeway to conduct their business, coupled with the steady decline in new daily infections from September levels, people might be lulled into relaxing their guard. Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire reminded the public, however, that such improvements in the numbers “should not result in complacency. We must continue to strengthen local response in all areas to hammer down daily cases.”
What happens if the public disregards minimum public health standards (MPHS)? According to the DOH’s data analytics team in a statement issued on Nov. 6, active cases may shoot up again to more than 52,000 by mid-December: “An uptrend of active cases was observed in scenarios where there is increased mobility from 82 percent to 91 percent and a corresponding decrease in the compliance to MPHS by 26 percent. In these scenarios, active cases may reach up to 25,305 to 29,811 by the end of November and 33,891 to 52,393 by mid-December.”
Using its disease surveillance tool called FASSSTER (Feasibility Analysis of Syndromic Surveillance Using Spatio-Temporal Epidemiological Modeler For Early Detection of Diseases), the DOH estimated that active cases will be four to five times higher by the end of November, and 16 to 20 times higher by mid-December when compared to scenarios where strict compliance with MPHS is maintained.
“Mobility will increase the viral transmission,” Dr. Tony Leachon, former adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19, likewise cautioned. Europe is demonstrating at this time how quick the situation could turn around. Cases in the continent have risen by 7 percent or 1.9 million, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the new coronavirus infections globally, according to the WHO. Many European countries had relaxed restrictions after cases dwindled, but now they face a fresh surge in infections. Denmark returned to pre-pandemic life in September by removing mask-wearing and allowing gatherings without limitations.
Last week, it was mulling the reintroduction of a digital “corona pass” to prove vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test with the onset of a third wave of infections. In the Netherlands, cases are hitting an all-time high despite the high vaccination rate among adults. Germany has reinstated free COVID-19 tests as new record infection rates are being tracked. French Health Minister Olivier Véran has warned his country that “what we are experiencing… clearly looks like the beginning of a fifth wave.” And in Iceland, mask-wearing and physical distancing rules have been reimposed.
Per the Reuters COVID-19 tracker, the Philippines has vaccinated only about 31 percent of its population—still far from the ideal 70 percent recommended by the WHO. The situation remains fragile, so the imperatives have not changed: for the government to work double time to double the vaccination rate, and for the public to continue wearing masks, washing hands, and avoiding the 3Cs (closed, crowded, and closed contact settings)—a challenge during the holidays, but one that must be done.
There are three more Cs to keep in mind: To enjoy Christmas, don’t be complacent over COVID-19.
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