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Is a new COVID surge inevitable?

After more than two years of lockdowns, economic downturns, and a lot of bad news, election fever has lifted spirits, infused funds into businesses, and triggered all forms of revenge partying. And with the party atmosphere come the hugs, the selfies, the cheering, and the crowds. All these in the wake of a terrible pandemic that, we are constantly being reminded of, is not yet over.

I must admit that I am guilty of some complacency. I often find myself bringing down my mask for people to see my smile though I try to hold my breath long enough for pictures to be taken. But sometimes this is not possible. And how can those of us running for public office shoo away people who want to touch us, embrace us, have pictures taken with us? Such acts of support bring strength to our otherwise weary bodies and spirits. We immerse ourselves in the crowds. My confidence to do so comes from the fact that I am among the lucky ones who have been completely vaccinated and boosted, with no known comorbidity that may render me high risk for COVID-19. This blessing, plus the fact that the large crowds that attend our sorties and town hall meetings are fully vaccinated, has allowed a lot of leeway.

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COVID-19 cases are definitely down. In some parts of the country there have been zero new cases for many days, even weeks, thanks to many factors. Aside from the high rate of vaccination in these towns, the Philippines has also been lucky. According to experts, the Omicron variant B2.A, which is currently wreaking havoc in many parts of China and other countries, was already in the Philippines during our Omicron surge. The very high transmissibility and relatively milder cases brought by the Omicron variant and its subvariant have infected a large portion of our population, causing natural immunity. Coupled with vaccines, this has brought relative calm to the country.

But we’re not out of the woods yet. The World Health Organization has expressed fears that election campaign activities, the family reunions in the past Holy Week, and the emergence of more COVID variants and subvariants, will result in a COVID surge soon after the elections. But this is not inevitable.

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Government must take this period of calm before a possible storm to find the stragglers, especially among the elderly and vulnerable, who have not yet been completely vaccinated. Local government units might want to use the house-to-house election campaigns to find these individuals and convince them to have themselves vaccinated. As I go around the country, I have found that those who have so far resisted the vaccines are more willing to have the jab if popular politicians or celebrities do the convincing, a novelty that tends to wear down reluctance among the unvaccinated. They even make sure to have their pictures taken while I vaccinate them, for bragging rights. There are also other innovative incentives by local governments that have been successful—from raffling off piglets and chickens, to free fertilizer as prizes, and outright cash.

Then there are the booster shots. The current low incidence of COVID-19 cases has made it more difficult to convince people to get their booster shots. “Wala nang COVID, bakit pa?” they counter. What many people forget or ignore is that immunity from vaccination does wane after some months, and that the time to get booster shots is before a surge starts. An additional or second booster is also recommended for the elderly and high-risk individuals, including health care workers. Whether periodic or yearly COVID-19 shots will become the norm, we still don’t know. What we do know is that booster shots will help prevent severe cases that may overwhelm our health care system should the new variants and subvariants of SARS-CoV-2 invade our land.

Will the Philippines see another COVID-19 surge? Possibly. Some say probably. But if we use this hiatus and campaign period to proactively find the unvaccinated, get the jabs into their arms, and incentivize and educate our people on the importance of boosters, we may yet weather whatever storms the virus may bring without losing our momentum towards full recovery.

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Dr. Minguita Padilla is a co-convenor of Doctors for Truth and Public Welfare. She is the founder of the Eye Bank Foundation and served as head executive staff of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. She has received multiple awards for her work on the prevention of blindness, community service, and curbing insurance fraud. She is a running for the Senate under Partido Reporma.

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TAGS: Commentary, COVID-19 pandemic, COVID-19 surge, Minguita Padilla
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