Tweaking to new normal

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

At the current rate of increase in the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection in terms of cases that spiked in a matter of two weeks, the Omicron variant has become the new dominant foreign variant here in our country. The first two cases of Omicron variant were detected here in our country last Dec.15. A few weeks later, it has obviously pushed much faster the cumulative COVID-19 cases in the Philippines to reach the more than 3-million count last Tuesday (Jan.11).

In the latest wave of the pandemic, the country recorded a new high in the daily tally of 32,246 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday. This erased the single-day highest recorded COVID-19 cases in our country that reached 26,303 on Sept. 11 last year due to the more transmissible and virulent Delta variant.

The daily tally comes from the monitoring being done by the Department of Health (DOH) based from the COVID testing being done all over the country. These COVID-19 test results were being reported and collected by the DOH out of the 312 private bio-molecular and hospital laboratories in both the private sector and government.

The new record-breaking daily tally was recorded a few hours after we had Health Secretary Dr. Francisco Duque III as our featured guest at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday. Duque joined us anew via zoom webinar wearing a facemask. He was back to his DOH office after self-isolation following his latest direct contact with a COVID-19 positive individual.

Duque happily told us though his Sinovac vaccine has apparently been working well for him. The DOH Secretary was among the government officials who took the China-donated Sinovac. The Chinese anti-COVID vaccines were the first to arrive in the Philippines in March last year. It was during the outbreak of the second pandemic wave here caused by the Alpha variant.

Turning 64 years old next month, the country’s chief doctor sought to advise his fellow senior citizens, including people with co-morbidities to get full dose of vaccine. “Get your booster shot as this will give added protection against the Omicron variant,” Duque practically pleaded. In fact, Duque quipped, he just had his Sinovac booster shot three weeks ago.

To date, Duque noted the Philippines is now among the 147 countries where the latest Omicron variant has escalated the COVID-19 positive cases in the past two years since the pandemic hit us. Out of the confirmed 43 Omicron cases so far traced by the government, he disclosed, 19 of them were found at the National Capital Region (NCR).

This prompted the DOH to raise to Alert Level-3 the entire NCR since Jan.3. The DOH chief believes the Omicron variant has been obviously behind the ensuing spikes of COVID-19 cases in the neighboring provinces around Metro Manila, collectively called as the NCR Plus namely, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal. The IATF added 28 more provinces to higher Alert Level-3 starting today until the end of this month.

Duque counts on the experience of South Africa with the Omicron variant that persisted only for just a month or so. Given the characteristics of the foreign variant mutations, Duque explained, there is no telling though how definitely soon the Omicron-induced surge will taper off here in our country. “I hope we follow the same trend or pattern,” he added.

The Delta variant remains the prevalent lineage of COVID-19 in the Philippines with 8,497 cases as of Jan. 6. The DOH Secretary heaved a sigh of obvious relief that the country’s healthcare utilization rate is not moving as quickly as it used to during the Delta surge.

Duque attributed them to the ramped up measures to stop the pandemic spread that kept the fatality rate at much lower numbers. He noted with satisfaction more and more Filipinos are now getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 infection. To further assuage the public not to panic about the Omicron variant, Duque revealed the results of a recent internal study done by the DOH.

Duque disclosed the results of the DOH probe showed the hospital admission curve has been lower for severe COVID-19 patients. The DOH findings revealed about 700 of the patients admitted for COVID-related infection constituted the severe cases, representing 7 percent of all the admitted 8,500 cases. About 217 hospital admissions were critically ill which is about 3 percent of the total cases. “But if I were to use the active cases as the denominator, it is less than 1 percent and our critical is only 0.1 percent, so the number is really much lower,” he pointed out.

Duque clarified though the daily COVID-19 tally of cases all over the country does not, however, include the test results of those who only underwent the antigen rapid test (ART) on their own, or on do-it-yourself basis. As the co-chairman of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID), Duque candidly admitted the difficulty of monitoring ART results. Duque conceded this poses great challenge for the government in controlling the spread of the COVID-19 infection especially in the light of the recent decision of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision to process applications for the distribution of ART and other COVID home test kits.

Duque specifically expressed concern on the improper disposal of a used COVID test kit. He fears this might lead to further spread of this very infectious flu-like disease if the FDA has no control and regulatory measures yet in place. “So that’s why it’s very important that people continue to adhere to our minimal public health standard,” he urged.

Amid reported emergence of new foreign variants from flurona to IHU, the DOH Secretary reassured the public the IATF’s immediate action, including adoption of new counter-measures. “Same intervention but we tweak them every now and then,” Duque vowed. Duque declared the country is well on the way to the “new normal” of post-pandemic.

For now though, the question again is not “if” but “when” these new foreign variants breach our borders again.

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