FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - June 19, 2021 - 12:00am

It is probably a good thing that we are down to debating the details of our comprehensive response to the pandemic.

The latest detail to be debated concerns the efficacy of wearing face shields, that uncomfortable plastic accessory we all have been putting on since last year. On its utility, opinion appears evenly divided.

These face shields are required to board public transport and enter malls – and make us all resemble a bunch of astronauts stumbling about with slightly impaired visibility. The scientific evidence for doing so has been tenuous at best.

The IATF maintains the shield, worn over surgical masks, adds a layer of protection from viruses wafting in the air. Much of the evidence of transmission, however, indicates the virus infiltrates our bodies through the nasal passage.

Nonetheless, the medical experts tell us that an additional layer of protection will not hurt. Every precaution counts.

Earlier this week, we were told the face shield is not necessary in outdoor settings. But they will still be required in enclosed spaces such as malls and restaurants. They will continue to be required for public transport.

President Duterte managed to cause some confusion when he agreed with legislators visiting at the Palace that the shield be required only in hospital settings. Some senators immediately broadcast his observations as if this was policy.

The IATF continues to insist the shield be worn indoors, when crowds make it impossible to exercise distancing. Expect this requirement to be relaxed as the number of infections trends downwards.

Another point of contention is the number of quarantine days required of returning Filipinos, especially when they are fully vaccinated. The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has been advocating reduction in the quarantine requirements because they eat into the family time of visiting OFWs. Many of these OFWs return because of family emergencies and the isolation time becomes truly unbearable. Some reduction in quarantine time has been won because of DOLE’s efforts.

Some local governments have also been pushing for more relaxed entry procedures to visiting residents and tourists. On this matter, the medical experts advising the IATF have been more adamant resisting any relaxation by local jurisdictions.

If these medical experts have been so vigilant, it is because of the experience of countries like Taiwan where outbreaks of infection happened after entry restrictions were relaxed. The spread of the Delta variant, coming out of India after the huge surge in infections there, reinforce the need for maintaining higher levels of vigilance.

Had the medical experts gotten their way, community quarantine levels in the NCR would not have been relaxed – to the consternation of our economic managers. But it is the role of the medical experts to be most paranoid about the possible new outbreaks of infection. In countries where the medical experts were marginalized – such as Modi’s India, Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Trump’s America – the surges in infection were most calamitous.

The DOLE likewise lobbied for special allocations of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for use of our migrant workers working for countries and companies that require them. The request was clearly meritorious and the DOLE got what it wanted.

Otherwise, our migrant workers could not be deployed if the vaccines they received were not accredited in the host countries they were bound for. This is especially true for our seamen who are required by their employers to be vaccinated using specific brands.

The Department of Tourism (DOT), for its part, lobbied that workers in the tourism sector be classified as frontline essential workers. The IATF saw the merit in the DOT’s request and moved tourism workers up the priorities list.

As the proportion of vaccines we receive from COVAX decreases compared to vaccines procured by government and enterprises, the IATF will have more flexibility in adjusting our vaccination priority list. The WHO created this priority scheme and it guided the deployment of the first shipments of vaccines from COVAX.

Vaccine doses procured by the private sector have begun arriving the past few days. The Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, for instance, received half a million doses of Sinovac and will soon distribute these doses to its member companies. San Miguel Corporation has begun vaccinating its 70,000 workforce and, eventually, their immediate family members. The corporations will inoculate millions.

Local governments have also been allowed to make their own vaccine purchases. These vaccine doses should be arriving in sufficient quantity next month. Because of this, the pace of vaccination should kick up substantially.

The Philippines is one of very few countries that allowed private enterprises and local governments to make their own vaccine procurement. This “liberalized” access to vaccines should democratize distribution eventually. It certainly takes some load off the great task of mass vaccination from the national government.

If we are somehow able to pull off some sort of herd immunity by the end of this year, credit will have to go to people like Charlie Galvez and Vince Dizon, who dared to be more innovative in crafting our vaccination strategy.

The global vaccine supply situation is beginning to ease. The manufacturers are now able to deliver in substantial quantities. We have over ten million fresh vaccine doses ready to deploy. We will get even more in July. Deliveries should peak in September and October.

In the first months of this year, when global vaccine supply was extremely tight, it did not seem likely we could get the vaccination program off the ground in any significant scale. Soon, however, we will have vaccine abundance in place of shortage.

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