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MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines’ top medical experts said on Thursday, September 8, they are against easing the face mask requirement when outdoors, saying that it would send a wrong message to the public that they “should not be afraid of COVID-19 anymore.”
“If you relax the requirement for the use of the face mask then it basically gives the impression to a lot of Filipinos that there’s no need…. ‘You should not be afraid of COVID-19 anymore and there’s no even need to vaccinate,'” said Dr. Maricar Limpin, past president of the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP), during a roundtable discussion on COVID-19 vaccination at the New World Hotel in Makati.
“So paano na ang mangyayari sa ating (What would happen to our) booster vaccination program? That would weaken our campaign,” she added.
Limpin was answering questions from the media regarding the Philippine government’s plan to relax the requirement to wear face masks outdoors after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. “verbally” approved the coronavirus task force’s recommendation. The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Disease (IATF) is composed of health experts and economic managers of the country.
Department of Health (DOH) officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said that an executive order is needed for the new rules to take effect.
In a statement sent to reporters on Thursday, DOH director for communications Dr. Albert Domingo said that the agency’s position has always been for the public “to continue on masking, but there were several data that were presented also that led to this decision.”
“We needed to balance between health and the economy, and what we have compromised would be, this will be done among low-risk individuals and in low-risk settings. This means that optional masking will only be done outdoors, in settings where it is not crowded, in settings where there is good ventilation, and this will be done among low-risk individuals – meaning, not the senior citizens, not those with comorbidities, not the children, and definitely not those having COVID-19 symptoms,” Domingo said.
Press Secretary Trixie Cruz Angeles said on Wednesday, September 7, that the new rules will have pilot implementation in the last quarter of 2022, provided that the COVID-19 booster coverage improves.
On the sidelines of the roundtable discussion on Thursday, infectious diseases specialist Dr. Rontgene Solante said the implementation of the new rules on masking would be challenging.
“We know by history, it’s difficult in terms of implementation but it’s important for us, medical societies, even media, to again reiterate the importance and inform the population at risk that the risk will still be there even if in an outdoor [setting], and if they will not be wearing face masks. So constant communication and specific messaging will really be important when we implement this policy,” he said.
Solante, who is also part of the country’s vaccine expert panel, reiterated his earlier position that “face mask should be the last to go” in terms of pandemic health protocols.
This development on the easing of face mask requirements came after Cebu City’s local order making face masks outdoors optional.
‘Don’t benchmark with other countries’
Reacting to critics who said that the Philippines is among the few countries that continue to have a masking mandate, Solante said that it is not right to “benchmark” the policies with others since each has a different context and situation.
“Magkakaiba ‘yung healthcare system natin. Magkaiba ‘yung priority ng mga bansa…. For me, benchmarking dahil generalized na ‘uy Singapore gumawa na nito, Vietnam, gumawa na nito, eh tayo sasama din tayo.’ No,” Solante said, adding that government also needs to consider other factors, such as health systems, manpower, and availability of treatment.
(Each country has a different healthcare system. Each country has different priorities…. For me, benchmarking just because Singapore and Vietnam have already eased theirs, we will follow suit. No.)
“I think these are an important part when we consider a decision. Our anti-virals. When you say Thailand, Singapore – their government have good healthcare support for their vulnerable sectors,” he added.
A number of countries, including those in Europe and the United States, have already dropped their mandatory wearing of face masks in most public places, although this is still recommended in some indoor places. But the caveat is that a large portion of the population in most of these countries has been vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.
In the Philippines, although over 72 million individuals have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, only 18.2 million have received booster shots. – Rappler.com