EDITORIAL - Shorter isolation

The Philippine Star
EDITORIAL - Shorter isolation

Omicron is less severe than previous coronavirus strains such as Alpha and Delta, but it is wrong to describe the latest COVID variant of concern as “mild,” according to the World Health Organization.

While the WHO has taken note of the milder infections attributed to Omicron in countries such as South Africa, the variant can still cause severe infections and even death especially among those with comorbidities.

Omicron is also infecting even the fully vaccinated and boosted. While those who get such breakthrough infections are often asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, moderate cases can still seek hospital care, adding to the number of patients seeking confinement. Because of Omicron’s high transmissibility, the sheer number of patients can overwhelm hospitals.

Among the most vulnerable are the health frontliners, many of whom have been among the first to catch Omicron. The result is a scenario reminiscent of the start of the pandemic, when hospitals were forced to shut down wards or turn away patients because their doctors, nurses and other healthcare personnel had been infected.

In the past week, at least 400 health personnel at the Philippine General Hospital have tested positive. At the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, 169 employees had caught COVID as of last Monday.

To prevent a shortage of healthcare workers, the government is shortening the isolation period for infected HCWs, so that they can return to work quickly. Health officials have explained that the move is based on science and the experience of other countries battling Omicron, which infects faster but has a shorter period of transmissibility.

Nurses’ groups have opposed the move, fearing it would endanger the health of their members. The nurses and hospital owners are also worried that if infected HCWs return to work before they are fully recovered, they risk further spreading the virus to colleagues, patients and the general public.

Hospital owners have said they are sticking to the original isolation protocols for their HCWs. In the meantime, the government should work with hospitals to ramp up telemedicine services.

Since the government is encouraging home isolation to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, there should be an aggressive information campaign all the way down to the grassroots, providing simple instructions on accessing telemedicine services. People with possible COVID symptoms can then get immediate attention and find out if they qualify for home quarantine. Since the new policy on the isolation of infected HCWs has become a contentious issue, the government should stick to doable measures amid Omicron’s spread, and implement them quickly.

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