COVID-19

COVID-19 weekly watch: A guide to staying safe this pandemic holiday

Sofia Tomacruz
COVID-19 weekly watch: A guide to staying safe this pandemic holiday

HOLIDAYS. Mall workers board a Gondola to decorate a 40-feet Christmas tree at the Venice Grand Canal mall in Taguig City on October 15, 2021. Many business establishments are preparing to open as the IATF eases quarantine restrictions in the National Capital Region to Alert level 3 starting October 16.

Rappler

This week of December 6, 2021, we're looking at experts' advice on how to celebrate the holidays safely, developments on the Omicron variant, and how the Philippines is keeping with its vaccination targets

The coronavirus situation in the Philippines continues to improve, with cases back to levels not seen since July 2020 and active cases at levels that were last seen in May 2020. All areas are now under Alert Level 2.

Nationally, the country remains at a “minimal risk” case classification, with all 17 regions showing a decrease in average daily attack rates compared to three to four weeks ago. All regions’ health systems were also at low risk with less than 50% of COVID-19-dedicated beds and intensive care unit beds occupied. 

Health officials are keeping a close eye on Eastern Samar and Zamboanga Sibugay, which have shown a positive growth in cases in the recent week and a slight increase in average daily attack rates. 

Here’s what we’re watching this week of December 6, 2021:

Holiday guide

After nearly two years since we started living under a pandemic, Filipinos are raring for a semblance of normality, especially as the holidays roll in. While improvements in the COVID-19 situation have been observed in recent months, the season – with all its gatherings, travel, and close contact with friends and family – still holds risks. 

Does that mean you can’t enjoy the coming weeks? The answer to this isn’t always clear cut, but Rappler asked experts how they would navigate the season so you don’t have to. 

  • One way to approach holiday activities – and all others under a pandemic – is to adopt what experts call a “risk-based approach.” Think of it as assessing the risks associated with activities and how you might be able to mitigate some of those. 
    • From our interviews with experts, ventilation was one common factor that each emphasized. COVID-19, as we know, is airborne, so how risky an activity is can depend a lot on how well air is circulated in a venue. 
  • In broad strokes, some things to keep in mind would be that outdoor is almost always better than indoors (but in both cases, avoid crowds), getting fully vaccinated is key, and parties are still a sort of gray area. 
  • Risks can be reduced with proper planning, aside from practicing health measures like mask wearing. If you’re thinking of hosting a party, some of the things you’ll need to consider are air flow, the size of your venue, safety during meals, as well as vaccination. 
  • Dr. Benjamin Co, a pediatric infectious disease and pharmacology specialist, shared this piece of advice: “Err on the side of caution. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t even attempt to do it for ‘Christmas’ sake’…. Vaccination helped and so did the minimum health standards. We should embrace that.”
  • Before we forget, the newest variant of concern, Omicron, still poses a degree of threat while scientists learn more about how it behaves in the real world. At the moment, current measures we’ve used against Delta still work against Omicron. 
  • Read this Rappler piece for specific holiday activities experts say they would enjoy or avoid: COVID-19 holiday plans: What would experts do?
Omicron watch

Scientists around the world continue to learn more about the Omicron variant, but it could  take some weeks until findings from initial lab studies are released. Even as information will become available, expect it to be piecemeal so we won’t know everything we need to know all at once. 

Experts also caution against drawing conclusions from lab studies, saying that attention should be given to results from studies with an eye on real-world impact. To refresh, the world needs answers in three areas: how much more transmissible Omicron might be, how deadly it could be, and to what extent it could affect immunity from vaccines.

Severity

  • Early and anecdotal data from South Africa suggests that Omicron may cause less severe illness in patients. A study from the South African Medical Research Council shares the experience of several hospitals in Gauteng Province, where Omicron was first spotted. 
    • STAT News reported that the study included an analysis of 42 patients in the hospital on December 2. Most were actually there for other reasons and had infections detected because of testing protocol for all incoming patients. 
    • “Strikingly, most hospitalized patients who tested positive for COVID-19 did not need supplemental oxygen. Few developed COVID pneumonia, few required high-level care, and fewer still were admitted to intensive care,” STAT said. Hospital stay was also at an average of 2.8 days, much shorter than the average 8.5 days seen in the region, the report noted. 
    • It paints a different picture compared to previous waves of cases – but, more research is needed. Scientists want to see how Omicron affects different countries and different populations like the elderly, high-risk, and immunocompromised. 

Transmissibility 

  • In terms of how transmissible Omicron might be, it appeared the variant may spread more easily than others, and potentially Delta, too. 
  • But – another but – as STAT noted: “It was only identified within the past couple of weeks and still makes up only a tiny fraction of  cases worldwide, so drawing conclusions at this point is a risky business.”

Impact on vaccines 

  • On Omicron’s ability to affect vaccine performance, it won’t be an all-or-nothing scenario. Some data has suggested that, while Omicron is a larger threat to immunity than other variants, experts were already expecting this to a certain extent. 
    • “I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to square one of having no immunity against this virus,” Rishi Goel, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Atlantic. 
    • “Defenses, if they drop, should fall stepwisenot all at once: first against infection, then transmission and mild symptoms, and finally the severest disease. And vaccinated immune systems are extraordinarily stubborn about letting those last fortifications go,” the Atlantic added in a must-read piece
    • Meanwhile, Omicron is persuading more scientists to warm up to the idea of COVID-19 boosters, although additionial doses alone won’t stop the variant. What could see the biggest impact in keeping the virus at bay remains to be reaching more of the millions who are unvaccinated. 

In the waiting, the Philippine health department is tracing travelers who arrived from South Africa in November so they could be retested for COVID-19, and their test samples sequenced for the variant.

  • Of 253 passengers who arrived between November 15 and 19, officials have yet to locate 7 individuals – all of whom are returning overseas Filipinos. So far, officials are verifying details of 165 travelers, have contacted 80 passengers, and have retested four – who were negative for COVID-19. The remaining 76 passengers already contacted were in isolation and were yet to be retested. 
  • The World Health Organization warned that, while border controls could buy time, “every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases.” In preparing, efforts taken in relation to Delta serve as a guide, WHO Western Pacific Director Takeshi Kasai said.
Convalescent plasma therapy results

The WHO advised against the use of convalescent plasma when treating COVID-19 patients after evidence showed that it does not improve survival nor reduce the need for mechanical ventilation, and it is costly and time-consuming to administer.

  • In convalescent plasma therapy, blood plasma from someone who has recovered from COVID-19 is transferred to a patient battling the disease in hopes that the donor’s antibodies could help fight off infection. 
  • Evidence came from results from 16 trials involving 16,236 patients with non-severe, severe, and critical COVID-19 infection.
  • It should only be done in the context of clinical trials now, as opposed to regular or routine use, the WHO added. 
  • During some of the grimmest months of the pandemic in the Philippines, social media groups and timelines saw family of patients searching for the blood of recovered patients in hopes it could be used for their loved ones. St. Luke’s Hospital in Taguig City and the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital had been authorized to collect plasma donations.
Vaccine milestones

The Philippines is poised to hit some vaccination targets this year, after a nationwide vaccine drive. 

  • A three-day national vaccine campaign stretched into a five-day effort that saw nearly 10 million doses administered – the most the country had seen in a week since vaccines became available in March 2021. The initial target was 9 million doses for administration. 
  • Record-high daily jabs of over 2.82 million saw the Philippines in the top 5 countries that administered the most doses in a single day alongside the United States, China, Brazil, and India. 
  • Owing to these efforts, the Philippines will likely see at least 40% of the population fully vaccinated by the end of the year (a WHO target for countries), and possibly 54 million or 70% of the target population protected (a local target). 
  • These targets, however, were adjusted after early stumbles, supply issues, and a steep learning curve. The Philippines initially wanted to see 70% of the population fully vaccinated by December 31, 2021. That target is now pushed back to May 2022, before the country’s next election. 

Lookback: Two years ago on Wednesday, December 8, the first known patient in Wuhan, China, experienced symptoms of the disease we would later learn was COVID-19. 

We know more about the virus now than we did back then, but the end of the crisis is still out of sight. Here’s a timeline of everything that’s happened since. – 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.