Twice more lethal

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 12, 2021 - 12:00am

Several mayors are reporting an exponential increase in COVID cases, with the numbers doubling in just the last two weeks.

Unlike in the past, the coronavirus now spreads rapidly within a household, office or neighborhood. The mayors point out that it’s a markedly different behavior from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the original strain of COVID-19.

The mayors are worried, and they are responding on the assumption that they are now dealing with the more infectious mutations of SARS-CoV-2.

Granular lockdowns are being imposed on an increasing number of houses, streets, neighborhoods and barangays. This is the strictest quarantine, with residents confined to their homes and given assistance in basic needs such as food and drinking water by the local government.

In Caloocan City, quarantine passes are again required for entering supermarkets and wet markets. This could spread to more cities even outside Metro Manila. Cops with wooden sticks – ostensibly to measure physical distancing and enforce mask wearing – are back in commercial centers and public transport hubs.

So what happened in the past two weeks?

The Department of Health continues to hold off on pinning the blame on the COVID variants, or even calling the increase in infections a “surge.” Instead DOH officials blame the spike on lax compliance with minimum health protocols, particularly mask wearing and physical distancing.

Dr. Alethea de Guzman, director of the DOH Epidemiology Bureau, who faced us on “The Chiefs” Wednesday night on Cignal TV’s OneNews / TV 5, stressed that regardless of the virus strain, the best defenses are still the same minimum health protocols: wear a mask, and even better, wear a face shield; observe distancing; practice hand hygiene and cough/cold etiquette.

Mayors suspect that the DOH is refraining from attributing the surge to the variants to avoid sowing panic.

On the other hand, fear is a good enforcer of compliance with health protocols. Wouldn’t panic over a highly infectious variant that hits entire households discourage complacency?

Yesterday, it was reported that a study published in the British Medical Journal showed the UK variant, which is now in the Philippines, to be up to twice more deadly than the original. If it spreads in Metro Manila, the country’s most densely populated region, it deserves hitting the panic button – and making the necessary responses.

Dr. John Wong, a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, warned that COVID cases could jump nine-fold by the end of this month if the UK variant becomes the dominant strain.

*      *      *

One thing that happened in the past two weeks, which likely fueled the complacency, is the rollout of COVID vaccines. This was followed by reports that the government was considering easing the entire country into the most lenient modified general community quarantine. If MGCQ is at hand, and the vaccines are here, the perception that we’re nearing pre-pandemic normal is inevitable.

Such false sense of security, combined with the spread of the more transmissible variants, can spell disaster for public health, and consequently reverse the revival of economic activities. We’re seeing this in several countries now battling the variants even as their vaccination programs are way ahead of ours.

The reports said studies showed the vaccines of Pfizer / BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford / AstraZeneca were effective against this variant, called B117.

But the vaccines, except for about half a million doses of AstraZeneca, won’t be here until May at the earliest.

*      *      *

A year into the pandemic, compliance with some of the minimum health protocols has in fact become a bit easier.

There are boxes of disposable masks everywhere, ranging from P50 in Divisoria (P1 each) to P75 in supermarkets, and a wide array of high-end surgical masks, plus washable masks in designs that can match every type of outfit. More choices are available online, from different countries.

Face shields that used to be sold in department stores as kitchen splatter guards for P100 each were repackaged against COVID and sold for P75, and then P50, and then P35. The last time I bought one in Divisoria earlier this year – exactly the same box, same brand – I paid P5.

There are mountains of face masks and shields for sale all over Divisoria and Quiapo.

Supermarket and drug store shelves are now also well stocked with 70% alcohol, from pocket size to gallon containers. Automatic dispensers of alcohol and hand sanitizers are ubiquitous. Lysol disinfectants and hand soap are no longer being rationed. There are abundant supplies everywhere of Vitamin C / ascorbic acid, Centrum multivitamins, virgin coconut oil and melatonin.

In some households, the piles of toilet paper hoarded since the early weeks of the pandemic are probably not yet depleted.

*      *      *

The challenge is to keep the masks on, properly covering both nose and mouth, and minimizing opportunities for taking them off in the presence of others, such as when eating.

Distancing, it seems, is the bigger challenge – whether in public transportation, open commercial areas, in neighborhoods or homes.

Bus and jeepney inspections ended a long time ago, and distancing has been tossed out the window especially at night. Exhausted workers will take any ride, and jeepney drivers are only too willing to have their seats filled to pre-pandemic capacity.

Meanwhile, among families, gatherings among different households are back. If they can engage in domestic travel again and visit each other, the belief is that such gatherings are deemed safe.

When people are with relatives, masks and face shields are taken off, and distancing is ignored. Healthcare workers and mayors are reporting that the variant infections are spreading rapidly within households and among neighbors.

Even after vaccination, minimum health protocols must be observed for some time. After a year of quarantines, we are fully aware of these protocols. The variants are here, spreading and killing. We’ve been warned.

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