MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Health (DOH) on Friday, January 14, shortened by a few days the recommended quarantine and isolation period for fully vaccinated Filipinos.
The health agency cited as reasons the added protection afforded by COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the need to minimize disruption to essential services as the Omicron variant continued to drive record infections.
In the updated guidelines, fully vaccinated individuals who are asymptomatic and close contacts of a probable or confirmed case should quarantine for five days instead of the previous seven.
Isolation periods for fully vaccinated asymptomatic individuals, along with those who have mild cases of the virus, are likewise slashed to seven days instead of 10 days. In the case of mild cases, seven days would start from the onset of symptoms, while asymptomatic individuals should begin their count from when they tested positive.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire made the announcement at a press briefing in Malacañang on Friday.
“According to our experts, the benefits of shortening quarantine [for the fully vaccinated] outweigh risks in light of the Omicron variant. Updating our quarantine and isolation protocols are also consistent with global practices,” she said in Filipino.
In a town hall meeting with health workers on Wednesday, January 12, Vergeire said the recommendation was based on updated evidence, which included a recent study done by Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases. Data from the study showed that viral load from Omicron among vaccinated individuals was highest at three to six days after diagnosis or the onset of symptoms.
This was in addition to experts’ review of evidence in 2021 that showed vaccinated “individuals had lower chances of spreading the virus within their households and close contacts.”
Owing to the same findings, health officials decided to retain current quarantine and isolation times for Filipinos who are either partially vaccinated or have yet to receive a single dose.
Data from Japan presented by the DOH showed that high viral loads may still be present seven to nine days after the onset of symptoms. “Samples were then observed to have a marked decrease after 10 days since diagnosis or symptoms onset,” Vergeire said.
At present, those falling into this group need to quarantine for 14 days if they were close contacts of a COVID-19 case, or isolate for 10 days if they are positive or experiencing symptoms themselves.
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Edsel Salvana explained that data supported changes for the fully vaccinated since COVID-19 shots provided an added layer of protection against the amount of virus a person may be spreading, in the event that some people may be infected with the Delta variant instead of Omicron.
“If you’re fully vaccinated, we already made this stipulation that it’s an extra layer in terms of decreasing the amount of virus that you’re shedding…. We’re only doing the shortened quarantine and isolation for the fully vaccinated so we have an extra layer,” Salvaña said.
What about moderate and severe cases?
Health officials recommended that moderate cases, regardless of vaccination status, still observe isolation for 10 days, starting from the onset of symptoms. Patients with severe and critical cases were also advised to isolate for 21 days.
The DOH said the updated quarantine and isolation times for the general public would also apply to fully vaccinated health workers to avoid confusion.
Despite this, the agency said hospital infection control units and local health officials would continue to be given the leeway to shorten quarantine periods if needed to preserve manpower.
“This is not to put our healthcare workers or our patients at risk. This is still based on science. This is a contingency plan by government so that we can preserve our health system. The authority [to shorten quarantine] will be with our infection prevention control units,” Vergeire said. “It will depend on your infection prevention control units weighing the risks and the benefits.”
Updates to quarantine and isolation periods for the fully vaccinated come as cases soar to record highs partly due to Omicron, the latest variant of concern and the most contagious form of the coronavirus yet.
Aside from the Philippines, countries including Australia observe a seven-day isolation period for the fully vaccinated, while the United Kingdom allows those in this group to stop isolation at seven days with a negative test.
While Omicron is less severe than Delta, experts have cautioned against the notion that Omicron infections are “mild.” They urged the public to cut transmission by practicing health measures like proper mask wearing, distancing, and ensuring ventilation. The unvaccinated also continue to remain vulnerable and exposed to higher risks from COVID-19.
Health officials also continued to stress that while Omicron often results in milder infection, according to Vergeire, “having mild cases and more incidental COVID-19 cases does not mean our hospitals are not burdened anymore.” – Rappler.com