COVID-19

New COVID-19 variant Omicron threatens Philippines’ reopening

Sofia Tomacruz
New COVID-19 variant Omicron threatens Philippines’ reopening

HOLIDAY SEASON. Dancing fountains, a giant Christmas tree and a Nativity scene display greet people celebrating Christmas day at Luneta Park in Manila.

INOUE JAENA/RAPPLER

Philippine health officials say it is 'highly likely' Omicron will eventually make its way into the country, the same way all other variants of concern did

Before Omicron emerged on the global scene, Philippine pandemic officials were confident that the capital region – which had been on some of the strictest quarantine levels since early 2020 – could relax restrictions in time for the holiday season. Now, a new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, has alarmed scientists and has forced the government to reconsider its plans.

“Right now, considering that we have this variant, it will change everything. So we will need to have a recalibration and most likely, what we will do again what we did previously for Delta,” National Task Force Chief Implementer and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said on Sunday, November 28.

The designation by the World Health Organization (WHO) of Omicron as the latest variant of concern after Delta threw countries into a flurry. In a matter of just hours, countries, including the Philippines, closed their borders to several countries where local cases of the variant had been found. 

Philippine health officials said on Monday, November 29, it is “highly likely” Omicron will eventually make its way into the country, the same way all other variants of concern did. 

As they try to understand the 32 mutations on Omicron’s spike protein, more information could come through in weeks. 

Scientists around the world are racing to better understand Omicron and its potential impact, but stressed that while they find more answers, countries need to keep their guard up. 

Time to reinforce

With no known cases of the variant reported in the Philippines yet, what the country has at the moment is an opportunity to prepare. 

“It has been mentioned it might be just a matter of time until this enters but if we can delay that, it buys us time to strengthen our systems,” said Dr. Edsel Salvaña, an infectious disease specialist at the Philippine General Hospital and expert consultant for the government. 

Just days ago, the Duterte government appeared to be optimistic it could reopen Metro Manila and other parts of the Philippines by December 1. Majority of the country has been on Alert Level 2, while relaxing to Alert Level 1 would see most restrictions and prohibited activities lifted, essentially ushering in a “new normal.” 

Cabinet Secretary and Presidential Spokesperson Karlo Nograles said on Monday that the government’s coronavirus task force was still in the process of assessing whether a wider reopening would be possible.

For now, government-tapped experts and officials are preparing models to study the potential impact of Omicron on prevailing protocols of the government task force.

In the meantime, local governments were told to be on high alert for any increasing and clustering of cases in their communities. Local officials will also need to conduct active and aggressive contact tracing, as well as case finding in their areas, including people who traveled locally and internationally. 

Be vigilant

The Department of Health appealed to the public to continue proper mask wearing and to be conscious of observing health measures as the holiday season draws near. Filipinos were also told to take advantage of the ongoing three-day nationwide vaccine drive which will last until Wednesday, December 1. 

Since downgrading quarantine rules for most of the county in the past month, increased mobility and a reduction in compliance with minimum health standards were already observed, officials said. 

“We know many of you plan to see loved ones and friends so we appeal to everyone to please, please, please remain vigilant. Now more than ever, wear face masks properly, wash hands, practice physical distancing, and get the vaccine,” Nograles said. 

Across the world, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the emergence of the Omicron variant underscored how essential it is to ensure equitable distribution of resources like therapeutics and vaccines. 

“We shouldn’t need another wake-up call. We should all be wide awake to the threat of this virus…. Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant,” he said. – Rappler.com

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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.