PH seeks more oxygen tanks as Delta variant ravages Southeast Asia

As the highly-transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant sweeps through Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Thailand, the Philippines is doubling its preparations in case another surge hits the country.

In an interview with DZMM's TeleRadyo on Monday, July 19, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that while the country has "sufficient" oxygen supply for now, the government is in talks with manufacturers so it could buy more tanks.

"Currently, our existing oxygen supplies are sufficient but we need to add so we could be more prepared," Vergeire said.

Aside from this, hospitals were also asked to increase their bed capacity for COVID-19 patients.

"Our local governments are also guided that they should intensify their Prevent-Detect-Isolate-Treat-Reintegrate (PDITR) response and they should have navigation in their area so they won't be in chaos in case a surge happens," the health spokesperson said in a mix of English and Filipino.

However, in a separate interview with TeleRadyo on July 14, Philippine Ambassador to Indonesia Leehiong T. Wee said that they met with the Department of Trade Industry to discuss the possible exportation of excess oxygen [tanks] here in the Philippines to Indonesia.

Wee clarified though the Philippines would be selling the oxygen tanks to Indonesia, not donating.

"Kumbaga magsu-supply ang isang Filipino company ng oxygen to Indonesia," he said. (It's like a Filipino company will be supplying oxygen tanks in Indonesia.)

The Philippines has recorded 35 cases of the Delta variant, including three deaths and 32 recoveries. To prevent further spread, the government has barred persons from Indonesia from entering the country from July 16 to 31. It is also studying the possibility of imposing a travel ban on Malaysia and Thailand.

Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, is struggling to control the spread of virus transmission despite imposing its toughest mobility curbs so far. The more virulent variant of COVID-19 has already crippled Indonesia's healthcare system. Some hospitals on the most populous island of Java have reported to have reached over 90% capacity, including in the capital Jakarta.

Total cases in Indonesia now stand at 2.8 million, with 72,000 fatalities. The country on Saturday, July 18, reported 51,952 new infections and 1,092 deaths, overtaking India – where the Delta was first reported – in daily cases to become the epicenter of the pandemic in Asia.

In Thailand, the government on Sunday, July 18, announced an expansion of restrictions that include travel curbs, mall closures, and a night-time curfew after the country reported a third consecutive day of record case numbers. The Southeast Asian country has 403,386 confirmed cases and 3,341 fatalities.

The situation in Malaysia was also worsening as shipping containers have been sent to hospitals because the morgues were also overwhelmed. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, social media has been inundated with desperate pleas for oxygen.

What can PH do more?

While COVID-19 daily cases in the Philippines have plateaued at around 5,000 to 6,000, this is still higher than the average daily cases before the surge in infections happened last April.

That surge, which was driven by more infectious variants and easing of mobility restrictions, crippled the Philippine healthcare system. Doctors said that getting admitted in hospitals felt like a "lottery because a patient gets a bed because someone has died."

Former national task force adviser Dr. Tony Leachon said that the government should ramp up its "testings, contact tracings, isolation and quarantine facilities."

The country should also ramp up its genomic biosurveillance outside Metro Manila to detect possible cases of the new variant. Infectious disease expert Dr. Rontgene Solante said that Philippines was testing a "very small" number of samples for the presence of the new variants of COVID-19.

Leachon added that the country should accelerate its vaccination program to get more people protected before the more virulent variant gets dominant in the country.

On Monday, a private hospitals' group also flagged the country's shortage of nurses as possible threat of Delta variant looms.

Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines, Inc president Dr Jose Rene de Grano said that the limitation of private hospitals right now is the availability of nurses and staff.

"Kapag po dumami ang kaso ng moderate at critical, doon po magkakaproblema talaga. Mahihirapan po ang mga pribadong ospital, kahit po ang mga government hospitals," he said. (It will be a problem when cases of moderate and critical rise. The private hospitals as well as the government hospitals will be in a difficult situation.)

For many years, Filipino nurses have leaving the country to work overseas after failed attempts of fighting for higher wages and better working conditions.

The Philippine government has recently eased restrictions in virus epicenter Metro Manila, placing it under the least restrictive general community quarantine. This move is seen to increase mobility in the capital region. – With reports from Reuters/

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.