Planet Earth has been learning about Covid-19 ever since this highly contagious respiratory disease that killed so many was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020.
The knowledge led to mobility restrictions in many countries including severe lockdowns in the Philippines, not to mention a global race on who could produce the first effective vaccine. It turned out that proper vaccination and the blue disposable face mask, if worn properly, could serve as protection from infection.
But face masks are fast becoming a thing of the past. On Oct. 25, 2022, Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco announced that during the Cabinet meeting held that day, President Marcos approved the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) that the use of face masks be made voluntary in indoor settings, except in healthcare facilities, medical transport vehicles, and all types of public transport.
Three days later, Executive Order No. 7 was signed by the President.
Increased tourist arrivals
Frasco reasoned that lifting the stringent health protocols in the country “would result in faster recovery in tourism portfolios, like in the case of other economies in Asia, Europe, and North America where they are getting favorable economic conditions and an increase in tourist arrivals after liberalizing the mask mandate.”
On Nov. 1, 2022, or a day before the full implementation of in-person classes, the Department of Education (DepEd) also announced that the wearing of face masks in classrooms would be optional.
While the Department of Health (DOH) said it was deferring to the DepEd on policy decisions for the well-being and safety of students, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers criticized the government’s move to drop the obligatory use of face masks, which it described as the “last line of defense” against Covid-19 and other diseases.
Indeed, health experts sometimes cave in to non-experts. Had the DOH been calling the shots, the wearing of masks would have been obligatory until the end of 2022, or even later. In February 2022, then Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, now officer in charge of the DOH, explained: “For us in the medical field and for experts, our vision would be [that] face masks will be the last to go. The mask protects us from a lot of diseases, not just Covid-19. If you will notice, our respiratory infections in the country have declined. A lot of things are uncertain right now.”
Infectious yet asymptomatic
Another important point why the public should continue to wear face masks has to do with the prevalence of asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers. It is estimated that anywhere from 6% to almost 18% of those infected can carry and spread the virus without developing symptoms. Add to this an incubation period of around five days (or up to 14 days in some cases) before symptoms develop, and even those who ultimately show signs of being contagious can spread the virus to many people before they begin to feel ill.
Vergeire’s apprehension seemed justified, especially now that the country is experiencing an upsurge in Covid-19 cases. During the period April 17-23, the DOH logged 3,148 cases; of that number, 345 patients were admitted to hospital in severe and critical conditions. The previous week, April 10-16, was no different: A total of 2,386 new cases were recorded, constituting a 23% increase from the earlier week.
This week, the IATF announced that it had retained Covid-19 Alert Level 2 in 26 areas in the country—including the provinces of Benguet, Cebu, Davao, Palawan and Quezon—until the end of April, with some restrictions that needed to be followed—a maximum of 50% indoor venue capacity for fully vaccinated persons and those below 18 years old, even if unvaccinated, and 70% outdoor venue capacity.
Metro Manila and 48 other areas will remain under the most lenient Alert Level 1.
‘Variant of interest’
But some restrictions may be reinstated if cases continue to surge, especially now that the DOH had announced the detection last April 25 of the country’s first case of the Arcturus (or XBB.1.16) subvariant of Covid-19. This latest Omicron offshoot is fueling a surge of cases in India, where it was first detected last January.
Arcturus has since spread to at least 33 countries, leading the World Health Organization and the European Center for Disease Control to list it as a “variant of interest” by mid-April.
The variant could come in hot in the Philippines, too, considering how quickly it has spread in a number of countries. In the United States, Arcturus is estimated to be behind 7% of Covid-19 cases this month; it is now the second most prevalent case after XBB.1.5, another Omicron subvariant known as the “Kraken,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a Facebook post, public health expert Dr. Tony Leachon issued the reminder that the presence of Arcturus here is something Filipinos should watch out for, but not be panicky about.
Leachon wrote: “Positivity rate (which measures the percentage of positive results out of the total number of RT-PCR tests conducted) will continue to rise if we will not adhere to the minimum public health standards especially mandatory wearing of face masks… In my humble opinion, the DOH should not turn a blind eye to the fact that mandatory face masking is the only option we have, given the low PH booster rate that we have as we try to fully open the economy.
“People need definitive solutions. We can’t control mobility. But we can wear face masks conveniently to protect the people.”
At a Senate blue ribbon committee hearing in March, Vergeire confirmed that a total of 50.74 million vaccine doses would have gone to waste by the end of that month as parts of the Philippines’ stockpile would go unused.
Vergeire added that the DOH was working to ramp up the country’s vaccination program to address the wastage problem.
Per the latest DOH data, a total of 78.4 million persons nationwide are fully vaccinated (or have received the required two doses). But only 23.8 million have received the first booster shot and only 4.4 million have received the second booster shot that further fortifies the immune system against Covid-19 and its new subvariants.
Among the vulnerable sectors, there are 7.2 million fully vaccinated elderly, although only 2.9 million have received booster shots. Meanwhile, 10.2 million adolescents (12 to 17 years old) are now fully vaccinated, although only 1.2 million have received booster shots and 5.6 million children (5 to 11 years old) have completed their primary series.
It’s sad that for all the strict lockdowns imposed, the government was unable to prevent the wastage of precious vaccines that, together with the use of face masks, could have spared more Filipinos from a new surge of Covid-19 infections.