Bracing for Omicron

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

After Alpha and Beta last summer, and then Delta beginning in August, here comes Omicron.

The warning comes from the Department of Health (DOH), which declared over the weekend that the arrival of the latest COVID “variant of concern” in the country is inevitable.

Omicron, first detected in South Africa like the Beta variant, is now rapidly spreading in that country as well as in southern Africa, Europe and Israel, and has now reached Hong Kong – just a hop away from Manila.

The World Health Organization last Friday warned that Omicron, with at least 30 mutations that bind themselves to the coronavirus spike protein (meaning infection), poses a high risk of COVID reinfection. Experts are warning that Omicron or variant B.1.1.529 appears to be highly transmissible and may evade vaccines.

Hours before the WHO declared Omicron as the newest COVID variant of concern, global markets, certain currencies and oil prices had already fallen. National borders are being closed; lockdowns are creeping back. Israel, one of the most vaccinated countries with boosters and pediatric jabs administered, is reported to be on the verge of declaring a “state of emergency” and has banned the entry of travelers from all countries.

Perhaps the warnings from the WHO and our own DOH would stop growing complacency in our country over COVID safety protocols.

*      *      *

Last Thursday, for the first time since the pandemic lockdowns, I went to a night market – the one near the Tutuban train station in Divisoria.

It was past 10 p.m. so the major department stores in the area were already closed. Around Divisoria, only the fruit and vegetable stalls remained open. I bought a box of Davao pomelo and melon, which turned out to be incredibly sweet.

Parking at that hour in Tutuban was no problem and there were few vehicles and shoppers, allowing physical distancing of even two meters, so I walked around.

But I still wore a face shield over my mask because there were too many vendors no longer with their masks on. In one of the stalls inside the covered area, a saleslady was even vaping, which prompted me to quickly walk out again to the open area.

I don’t think there was anyone enforcing COVID safety protocols at the night market.

During daytime, this area is what we have been seeing on video where the crowd behaves as if the pandemic is over: distancing forgotten, with many people particularly vendors no longer wearing masks.

Images show cops with bullhorns and nightsticks reminding everyone about distancing, but I guess the crowds are simply overwhelming.

These days, people can bring along their kids to such places; the Tutuban commercial center has many stalls selling toys and children’s apparel.

Infectious disease experts, while stressing that they understand the economic necessity of relaxing mobility restrictions, are aghast.

There is supposed to be capacity limits for commercial centers. The obvious problem is how complicated it can be to pin down the capacity for malls, where people come and go as they please.

Enforcing distancing is less complicated – if there are enough enforcers and visual cues around.

The best approach is always voluntary compliance. But with COVID inoculation rates up at least in Metro Manila and neighboring areas, vaccination complacency is spreading.

We see this in commercial centers whether outdoors or in enclosed spaces, in jeepneys operating at 100 percent capacity, and in some private establishments that allow large gatherings where masking and distancing are mostly ignored.

*      *      *

We should bear in mind what the two variant-driven surges this year have done in our country.

On Dec. 31, 2020, total COVID cases in the Philippines stood at 474,064 with 1,541 new infections recorded on the last day of the year. Fourteen new deaths brought the total to 9,244.

Yesterday, 838 new infections brought the total to 2,831,807, with deaths hitting 48,361 due to the addition of 156. While the cases have dropped significantly since the August surge, the daily death toll remains high. And the year isn’t over yet.

The two surges forced a return to lockdowns, turning the expected summer tourism revival into a disaster, and raising fears that the fourth quarter holiday season might have to be written off as well.

To save the fourth quarter, the National Capital Region and neighboring areas with high COVID cases – the so-called NCR Plus – were reverted to the strictest quarantine qualification, but with more activities and mobility allowed unlike at the start of the pandemic.

At the same time, inoculation was ramped up and vaccines poured into the NCR Plus, to put out the conflagration before it could spread further. Vaccination was incentivized through raffles and shopping and dining discounts.

The approach apparently worked; infections went down, allowing many restrictions to be lifted.

Now the problem is vaccine overconfidence, and a dangerous complacency that is making people believe it is OK to ditch not only their face shields but also their masks and ignore physical distancing.

*      *      *

People should look at what’s happening in Europe and the US, where masking mandates and many other restrictions were lifted even as the anti-vaxxing sentiment remains strong.

Dr. Conky Lim-Quizon, a member of the multidisciplinary National Immunization Technical Advisory Group for COVID vaccine, laments that enforcement of safety protocols in our country has become lax alongside voluntary compliance.

Appearing on One News’ “The Chiefs” last Friday, she reminded parents that pediatric vaccination is just starting, so nearly all children in this country have not yet been inoculated against COVID. Infants and toddlers, who cannot keep masks on, can be particularly vulnerable to infection.

Doctor Conky, an epidemiologist, reiterated that face shields for adults add another 20 percent protection to the masks in high-risk environments. But if people are ditching masks, what more the face shields, especially now that they have come to be associated with corruption in the multibillion-peso Pharmally contracts?

Authorities will have to do more to enforce the most basic protocols of masking and distancing. We will also have to go slow in easing border controls and quarantine protocols.

The threat posed by Omicron to lives and livelihoods should restore compliance with COVID safety protocols, before the latest variant dashes hopes for a merry Christmas 2021.


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