COVID-19

Experts question gov’t vaccination thresholds for Alert Level 1

Sofia Tomacruz
Experts question gov’t vaccination thresholds for Alert Level 1

ELDERLY VACCINATION. In this file photo, senior citizens and persons with comorbidities of Paranaque City queue to receive their first jab of Sinovac vaccine during the local government's vaccination drive at the Ayala Mall Manila Bay parking on April 16, 2021.

Rappler

For Alert Level 1, LGUs must vaccinate at least 80% of seniors and 70% of the population in their communities

MANILA, Philippines – Seeking to usher in a “new normal,” government coronavirus task force officials directed local government units to ensure that at least 80% of senior citizens and 70% of the general population in their communities had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, citing the metrics among thresholds that need to be met to deescalate an area to Alert Level 1. 

Health secretary Francisco Duque III and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. announced the government’s additional requirements to further relax quarantine measures in a televised meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte aired on Monday night, February 21. 

Duque said National Task Force Against COVID-19 deputy implementer Vince Dizon had suggested adding vaccination metrics specific to the elderly population, as well as persons with comorbidities, among parameters that should be considered when assessing whether an area is ready to transition to looser restrictions. 

Kung hindi po sila ay makarating diyan po sa panukatan na iyan ay hindi po natin sila puwedeng ibaba to Alert Level 1 (If they haven’t met these metrics yet, then they cannot go down to Alert Level 1),” Duque said. 

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Weeks before additional vaccination thresholds were announced, pandemic officials had only mentioned “high” vaccination rates, along with low bed occupancy levels in hospitals, and low transmission of the virus was needed to lower quarantine restrictions in communities. 

But vaccination thresholds set at 80% of the elderly population and at least 70% for the general population are not nearly enough to protect health systems against the weight of future surges, said epidemiologist Dr. John Wong of public health research firm EpiMetrics. 

“Since herd immunity is no longer possible because of breakthrough infections, the target should be 100% to protect each Filipino, especially the elderly and persons with comorbidites,” Wong told Rappler. 

Setting the bar for Alert Level 1 at these levels for senior citizens in particular, would still leave about 1.8 million people at risk, Wong warned – a figure indicating “there would still be danger of overwhelming the health system.”

Ways forward

Galvez framed the government’s move to factor in vaccination levels for specific populations as a “way forward” in the country’s fight against COVID-19. Despite being among the the first groups to become eligible for vaccines in early 2021, vaccination rates among the elderly have been sluggish in recent months with only 65% of seniors protected as of February 2022. 

Required thresholds should push local officials to hammer down on activities that would increase vaccine uptake and allow areas to deescalate to Alert Level 1, Galvez said. Under this lowest alert level, no restrictions on capacity will be in place indoors and outdoors, as well as public transportation. 

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Rontgene Solante of the San Lazaro Hospital stressed that measures to protect vulnerable communities were even more crucial under conditions where quarantine restrictions were relaxed.

“These are the populations that are high risk once restrictions in public places and workplaces are relaxed, in terms of more people are allowed,” he said. 

Solante said the uptake of boosters, not only primary doses, should be considered among metrics that LGUs need to meet to be ready for Alert Level 1. “The booster is an important component for added protection especially for omicron driven surge,” he said.

Solante continued: “Being a heavily mutated variant, the protection we got with  two dose[s] is not enough to protect us against the omicron [variant]. Adding a booster dose retained our protection against Omicron, more so if it’s BA.2,” referring to the more contagious version of Omicron. 

On Monday night, Galvez said the rollout of boosters have been slow since the general population became eligible in December 2021. Roughly 9.7 million Filipino adults have received boosters as of February 22, while the government is targeting to administer 72.16 million additional doses.

Experts question gov’t vaccination thresholds for Alert Level 1

Faced with the reality of limited time and resources, experts have long pressed the government to prioritize vaccinations among the elderly and other high risk groups. Doing so would have the largest impact in protecting the country’s health systems and, in turn, allow larger parts of society to continue operating. (READ: In COVID-19 battle, herd immunity isn’t the only goal the PH needs to reach)

This much was seen in countries like Portugal, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, where at least 92% of their elderly population were fully vaccinated at the time of Delta-driven surges. 

On Tuesday, February 22, Health undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the Philippines continued to see a “steady decline” in COVID-19 cases after infections peaked to its highest levels in the pandemic so far in January. The Department of Health earlier declared the country had “overcome” Omicron as the average number of daily cases continued to fall and the country was considered low-risk for the virus. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.