DOH: ‘Not rational’ to shut borders to countries with single Omicron case

Bonz Magsambol
DOH: ‘Not rational’ to shut borders to countries with single Omicron case

CHRISTMAS RUSH. Hundreds of overseas Filipino workers start arriving for the holiday season, at the NAIA on December 1, 2021.

Inoue Jaena/Rappler

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire issues the statement in response to calls for a total ban on countries that have detected an Omicron case

MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Health (DOH) said on Thursday, December 16, that it was “not rational” for the Philippines to close its borders to countries that only have one case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire made the statement in response to recommendations that the country should impose a total ban on countries that have detected an Omicron case.

“We cannot close borders to the rest of the world that have one case of Omicron variant…. We cannot do that. We need to understand how this will affect our economy and foreign relations,” Vergeire said in a mix of English and Filipino during a press briefing.

She added, “But of course, public health remains our top priority but as of now it is not rational to close our borders to countries that have one case.”

The health spokesperson said that what is important is that the Philippines closes borders to countries that have local transmission of the Omicron variant. “And usually that reported one case from these countries is an imported case,” she explained in a mix of English and Filipino.

On Wednesday, December 15, Malacañang announced that the Philippines would ban travelers from eight “high-risk” countries for Omicron from December 16 to 31: Andorra, France, Monaco, Northern Mariana Islands, Reunion, San Marino, South Africa, and Switzerland.

Before the pandemic was declared in 2020, it can be recalled that the Philippine government drew flak over what critics described as passive response in terms of closing borders to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (READ: Even with coronavirus scare, no mainland Chinese travel ban for now – Duque)

On Wednesday afternoon, the DOH announced the detection of the country’s first two cases of the Omicron variant – incoming travelers who have been isolated in a Bureau of Quarantine facility.

No change in pandemic response

Vergeire assured the public that “there’s no need to panic” following the detection of Omicron cases in the country.

“We don’t need to panic, we don’t need to fear because lahat po na dumadating na ating kababayan, nakapag quarantine po silang lahat ng limang araw (all returning Filipinos have finished their five-day quarantine). Tinest po sila bago umuwi (They were all tested before they were allowed to return),” Vergeire said.

She explained that the there’s only a “slim chance” for these travelers to bring the virus to their communities since quarantine and testing protocols were enforced upon arrival .

Vergeire also said that there will be no changes in the country’s pandemic response and that the government will “intensify” the implementation of existing strategies such as border control, active case tracking, vaccination, and enforcement of minimum health protocols.

“Wala naman tayo babaguhin (We won’t change anything). As I’ve said, whatever we’re doing now is the formula for us to get protected against any kind of variant. What we’re going to do is we intensify our response, especially with our borders,” Vergeire said.

The new COVID-19 Omicron variant – first identified in South Africa but also detected in Europe and Asia – is raising concern worldwide given the number of mutations, which might help it spread or even evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination.

While much is still unknown about Omicron, experts have said they don’t yet know whether Omicron will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other coronavirus strains.

The DOH appealed to the public to continue proper mask wearing and be conscious of observing health measures as the holiday season draws near. –

Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol is a multimedia reporter for Rappler, covering health, education, and social welfare. He first joined Rappler as a social media producer in 2016.