Not done with COVID yet
It will exactly be three years since COVID-19 was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Dec. 31, 2019. Over this period, 6.66 million have died globally from the virus that has since mutated into several variants, the pandemic sending economies across the world to their knees. With the worst seemingly over, the WHO hopes that COVID will no longer be a global health emergency next year. But for this to happen, more work needs to be done, such as improving vaccination rates.
In the Philippines where vaccination rates — especially for booster shots — remain low, the government must accelerate its drive to ensure more people are vaccinated. “If there are huge chunks of population that have not had vaccinations, the world still has a lot of work to do,” said WHO’s emergencies director Mike Ryan.
With Christmas just around the corner, Filipinos are more likely to be preoccupied with making plans for the holidays or figuring out how they could manage “noche buena” amid inflationary prices of goods than to be concerned about their health. This will be the first Christmas in three years when restrictions have been eased, and Filipinos’ enthusiasm to finally be able to celebrate the country’s biggest holiday with their loved ones is apparent in the traffic on the roads and crowds in the malls—inflation or COVID-19 be damned.
Even more reason for essential public health intervention to be done, and vaccination is one of the most cost-effective preventive measures that will save families from the high cost of getting infected. According to Department of Health (DOH) data as of Dec. 13, more than 73.7 million have already received complete doses, but only 21 million have gotten their booster shots. Those who have received their booster are only 28 percent of those with complete doses and only 19 percent of the total population.
The United States is facing a similar situation with “mandate fatigue,” as its top immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci calls it, where “people want to be done with COVID” and do not like to be told what to do. “We’ve all been exhausted over the last three years,” Fauci said, noting the very low rates of people in the US getting the latest booster shot against COVID-19—only 13.5 percent for those age 5 and older. This mandate fatigue, coupled with vaccine fatigue, has made the US more vulnerable to flu, with only a smaller percentage of the population getting their flu shots compared to previous years.
Under-vaccination is even more problematic in China, where the virus was first detected and a recent upsurge has been reported, especially for the elderly. Only around 30 percent of people age 60 and up—or about 80 million—have been vaccinated and boosted as of November. It is even worse for those 80 or older, with 60 percent not receiving their COVID jabs. The low vaccination rate is ironic for a country whose “zero COVID” policy has spurred street protests that prompted Beijing to relax its rigid regulations last Dec. 7.
Despite the easing of restrictions globally, the virus should remain everyone’s concern. At the home front, the DOH has reported a “slight increase” in COVID-19 infections this week with an average of 1,181 cases daily—this is about 6 percent higher than the previous week. In Metro Manila, cases rose by 15 percent with an average of 460 infections daily. DOH officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said the uptick leading to the holidays was to be expected, but the public need not panic since there was no rise in hospital admissions and not a lot of severe and critical cases. Recently, the government launched an open-door policy to encourage the public to get vaccinated over the holidays. This means that anyone can walk in for vaccination at any public health facility or vaccination site across the country even while on vacation.
Making the vaccine more accessible, instead of restricting it by residency or priority group, will encourage more people to get jabbed and boost the country’s vaccination rate. Vaccines, in general, have been besieged by limited supply and unequal distribution issues, according to the latest Global Vaccine Market Report released last month. As seen in the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, wealthier countries had the means and access to acquire the much-needed vaccines than lower-income countries. Given lessons from the past three years, the WHO has called for changes in vaccine distribution “to save lives, prevent disease and prepare for future crises.”
There should be no excuse to skip vaccination when it is already being made even more accessible. But the government must also continuously address vaccine hesitancy among the population, especially in rural areas. For countries like the Philippines where the health system is broken, prevention is better than cure. Precautions must continuously be taken: Get vaccinated and wear a mask to avoid spoiling the holidays by catching the virus and infecting others. The world is not done with COVID yet.
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