[OPINION] Creating safe spaces for unvaccinated Filipinos in the NCR

Nicanor Austriaco Jr.
[OPINION] Creating safe spaces for unvaccinated Filipinos in the NCR

Illustration by Janina Malinis

'[O]ur restaurants and businesses have to establish safe spaces for the unvaccinated in the same way that they have created safe spaces for non-smokers'

Our COVID-19 vaccine program has reached a turning point. The national government has signaled that the vaccine supply will now be able to meet public demand by opening up inoculations to the general public. In the NCR, local government units will now be able to push ahead to reach and even to exceed their target of inoculating 70% of the population. This is especially important because experts calculate that the Delta variant has increased the herd immunity threshold of a population from 70% to about 85%. 

Nonetheless, it is reasonable to think that Metro Manila will attain significant population protection against COVID-19 in the next few months, especially since I have heard of unpublished scientific data of seropositive testing that suggests that up to 65% of unvaccinated residents in Metro Manila have been previously exposed to COVID-19.

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As other cities around the world have demonstrated, robust population protection will allow us to significantly re-open our society. As I write this, New York City has fully vaccinated 63.8% of its total population. 70.8% of its total population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. And New York City is open! 

Even two months ago when population protection was not as robust as it is now, I was able to dine in restaurants, visit museums, and walk around freely in the shops and churches of 5th Avenue without too much concern. We still had to wear masks – no face shields! – but we did not have to socially distance. Life was very much back to the normal. 

Like the residents of NYC, we need to begin living life alongside the virus. As the NCR re-opens, I propose that we create safe spaces for our unvaccinated kababayans who are at heightened risk for severe disease, hospitalization, and death. They need to be protected from their vaccinated neighbors who may unknowingly be carriers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

Thus, our restaurants and businesses have to establish safe spaces for the unvaccinated in the same way that they have created safe spaces for non-smokers. These safe spaces can be distinct spaces in a venue – open-air and well-ventilated areas are to be preferred – where the unvaccinated can spend their time, or distinct times during the day or during the week when they would be able to patronize a business without being exposed to those who are vaccinated. Of course, minimum public health standards will have to be maintained throughout.

In contrast, restaurants and businesses should also be encouraged to set up spaces and times for the vaccinated who can gather in normal numbers and at full capacity. At my university where I teach in the United States, we have a 97% vaccination rate among our students. Our fully vaccinated students gather and mix in our cafeteria at full capacity. They can even remove their masks while eating inside the building. No social distancing is required. 

In the past six weeks, we have not seen any significant transmission of virus among these hundreds of vaccinated students who enter our university dining hall three times a day. Importantly, our experience is not unique. I know of other colleges and universities here in the US that have not seen any transmission of COVID-19 among a fully vaccinated population of students who eat and mingle together in the cafeteria. This is strong anecdotal evidence in support of full capacity accommodation of vaccinated persons in the NCR.

Who should be counted as a vaccinated person? I think that it is important that only “fully vaccinated” individuals should be considered as “vaccinated.” Those who are partially vaccinated are still at risk for severe disease and hospitalization. However, I also propose that Filipinos who survived COVID-19 should be allowed to mingle with their fully vaccinated kababayans. They should also be considered “fully vaccinated,” because there is published scientific evidence that suggests that 95% of those who were infected with SARS-CoV-2 retain substantial immunity against severe COVID-19 and hospitalization for at least eight months. This is comparable to the length of protective immunity that we have seen with our major vaccine brands.  

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When can we begin re-opening our societies in this way? With robust population protection in the NCR, our primary concern for pandemic management should be to protect the healthcare system in Metro Manila. As I write this, the NCR total bed occupancy rate is decreasing, and the NCR ICU bed occupancy appears to have peaked. This corroborates the other pandemic numbers that indicate that the Delta surge in the capital is rapidly decelerating. 

The experience of our ASEAN neighbors suggests that a resurgence becomes increasingly unlikely once the Delta wave enters this deceleration stage. We should now be willing to begin creating safe spaces for the unvaccinated and normal spaces for the vaccinated as long as we maintain face masking and minimum public health standards. Of course, we need to continue to complete the vaccination of the rest of our population, including our children, many of whom are restless to return to the world.

I should add that there is creating safe spaces is especially pressing at this time because mobility data from Google and Apple suggests that Filipinos in the NCR are simply more mobile now. We need to protect the unvaccinated who are mixing with the vaccinated. 

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do, but I am very hopeful for a near-normal Christmas where fully vaccinated families and friends and those who have survived COVID-19 can gather to remember, once again, the birth of the Savior. We will have much to be thankful for. We will have much to celebrate. –

Reverend Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP is Visiting Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Santo Tomas, and an Octa Research Fellow.

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