COVID-19 vaccines

[OPINION] Our race to a no-mask Christmas

Nicanor Austriaco Jr.
[OPINION] Our race to a no-mask Christmas

Illustration by Guia Abogado

'Can Jose Mari Chan remind us that this is the Christmas we want back in our hearts?'

For the first time since we entered lockdown last year, I can imagine an exit strategy from the COVID-19 pandemic for our beloved Philippines. It will be a challenging uphill race between the Filipino people and the SARS-CoV-2 variants. Our goal will be to reach what I am going to call “no-mask” immunity, which is that level of population immunity that will allow fully vaccinated people to remove their masks together in a public space. 

Because of the severe global shortage of COVID-19 vaccines, it is unreasonable to anticipate no-mask immunity for the entire country this year. However, our computer modeling revealed that we can try to attain no-mask immunity in select geographical regions of the archipelago by Christmas. The national government has chosen to focus on the NCR+8 – regions of the NCR and its neighboring provinces – and Cebu and Davao, and I support that strategy. Prioritizing the NCR+8 so that approximately 38 million Filipinos can attain no-mask immunity by Christmas will go far in ending the pandemic throughout the country.

There is one primary argument for prioritizing vaccination in the NCR+8: by suffocating the virus in those regions that drive the pandemic, we will be able to dramatically reduce the risk of surges in all the regions of the country. Imagine if we had reached no-mask immunity in the NCR a few months ago. There would be no surges in Mindanao or the Visayas today! The current surges of COVID-19 cases in the rest of the country were seeded by our kababayans, especially locally stranded individuals (LSIs), who returned to the provinces once the ECQ/MECQ lockdown had been released in the NCR Plus bubble, and who attended superspreader events in their home LGUs. They brought the variants home with them!

What will it take to reach no-mask immunity in the NCR+8 by Christmas? Calculations show that we will have sufficient vaccines to reach this goal by September or October by the latest. Therefore, in my view, the success of this race to no-mask immunity will be determined by three challenges. 

First, we will have to deploy between 35 to 52 million or so doses to the residents of the NCR+8. To do this before Christmas, we would have to administer around 300,000 doses per day in the target regions of our country alone. Given our recent vaccination rates, however, I think that this is a reasonable target rate that we should be able to exceed.

Must Read

With no fixed schedule, Manila residents wait up to 8 hours to get jabs

With no fixed schedule, Manila residents wait up to 8 hours to get jabs

Second, we have to prevent community transmission of any new variants not already circulating in the Philippines. This is critical, which is why I strongly support the national government’s efforts to enforce the strict 10-day quarantine in all ports of entry, including Cebu. As we are now witnessing in Chile, where the Gamma variant is surging, and in the United Kingdom, where the Delta variant is also exploding, a new variant can decimate a population even when significant numbers of people in the country are fully vaccinated. A 10-day quarantine with a PCR swab test is 99.3% effective. Anything shorter than that would be too leaky.

Must Read

Negros Occidental, Cebu tighten restrictions for Negros Oriental travelers

Negros Occidental, Cebu tighten restrictions for Negros Oriental travelers

I understand that the burden and cost of a 10-day hotel quarantine is great for returning overseas Filipinos – I myself had to go through that 10-day quarantine last month in spite of being fully vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine – but the burden on millions of Filipinos would be catastrophic if especially the Delta variant leaks through our borders. Instead of relaxing the international travelers’ quarantine, the national government should accelerate the process of allowing fully-vaccinated travelers, especially those inoculated with the mRNA vaccines, which are now known to prevent even viral transmission, to enter with minimal quarantine and testing requirements. I recommend considering implementing the IATA Travel Pass, which is expected to go live in the next few weeks.

Third, we have to overcome vaccine hesitancy and replace it with vaccine envy. To do this, we have to appeal to the Filipino heart and to our bayanihan spirit. We have to challenge ourselves and our kababayans by seeking a goal that we can achieve together. And this goal should be a no-mask pasko! Imagine simbang gabi with no masks! Imagine Christmas carols with no masks! Imagine family reunions with no masks! Imaging hugging our lolos and lolas and our apos with no masks! This vision of a no-mask Christmas is attainable this year in the NCR+8 if enough people decide to get vaccinated together. 

Must Read

PH may need P25 billion for COVID-19 vaccination of kids 12 and above

PH may need P25 billion for COVID-19 vaccination of kids 12 and above

The national government, LGUs, and the private sector together should initiate advertising campaigns to pull at our Filipino heart strings to encourage everyone to achieve this one goal of a no-mask pasko. Can Jose Mari Chan remind us that this is the Christmas we want back in our hearts? 

Along the way, we have to provide increasing numbers of no-mask incentives to those who received their two jabs. For example, business employees who are fully vaccinated should be allowed to remove their masks indoors, and to eat together without their masks. Restaurants whose employees are fully vaccinated should be allowed to provide in-door dining options for those who are also fully vaccinated. Gyms can promote no-mask hours when fully vaccinated members could enter and work out as they did before COVID-19. There are many possibilities, and the IATF has to be imaginative so that we reward the fully vaccinated with no-mask incentives that make them the envy of the barangay! 

Finally, when will we know when we have achieved no-mask immunity? When will it be safe enough to mitigate our COVID-19 restrictions? The experience in Israel suggests that we can begin to return to the “old” normal once we have fully vaccinated around 40% to 50% of the population. Within several weeks of this vaccination target, the ADAR should fall to below 1 in 100,000, which is around 100 new cases per day in the entire NCR. At that point, the risk of a surge in the NCR – again this is assuming that no new variants arrive – would be minimal. It would be safe enough to remove our masks in most places. It would be safe enough to sing Christmas carols, to eat together at our Christmas parties, and to thank God for the beginning of the end of the pandemic in the Philippines. – Rappler.com

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