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I hope I do not speak too soon when I say that the Philippines has been spared from the surge that has been (and is still being experienced) by our neighbors in Asia. Elsewhere, a BA.2-fueled surge is now happening in New York, and in South Africa it was the BA.4 and BA.5. These sublineages of the highly transmissible Omicron variant have been a source of worry for some weeks now, especially now that there has been a confirmed local transmission of the BA.2.12.1 in the Philippines.
That was the premise when we invited last May 16 a distinguished roster of experts to share their insights with the private sector. To give us insight into public health and policy, we had Dr. Nina Gloriani, chair of the vaccine expert panel, and Dr. Ted Herbosa, special adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19. To explain the situation on the variants now present in the country was Dr. Cynthia Saloma from the Philippine Genome Center, and as always, we were fortunate to have on board Dr. Maricar Limpin, president of the Philippine College of Physicians. From OCTA Research were Prof. Ranjit Rye, Dr. Michael Tee, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco and Dr. Guido David, as was Dr. Benjamin Co, chief of the section on Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Santo Tomas. We were also joined by health reform advocate Dr. Tony Leachon.
It was a productive meeting. Members of the private sector who were present probably were able to glean some insight into where the Philippines is today, pandemic-wise, and what they can do to mitigate possible risks to their businesses.
While it’s not completely understood why the Philippines managed to dodge the surges, it remains a precarious situation. According to the Philippine Genome Center, 90 percent of the COVID cases in the Philippines are Omicron. The BA.4 and BA.5, which are also described as highly transmissible and are now considered variants of concern in Europe, have not yet been detected in the country. I don’t think we can prevent these variants from coming in. Let’s accept the fact that variants can and will reach the country, and just better prepare for that and give people the vaccines that will protect them.
However, I believe the Philippines was spared from the previous surges through the combined efforts of experts and advisers. They brought us to this safe zone where the economy is open and infections are muted. The pain point right now is the low uptake of booster vaccinations.
To this point, I do not understand why we are still limiting second boosters to seniors and healthcare workers. Why not allow the 50 years and older to take it, as they do in the US as recommended by the CDC? Surely the CDC has done its homework, and they have already laid out guidelines for second boosters, much of it based on common sense: persons who received their boosters four months prior who are either 50 years or older, or those 12 years or older and moderately or severely immunocompromised can receive second boosters. The CDC also has provisions for those who received two doses of the J&J/Janssen vaccine who are 18 years or older.
These groups are more likely to suffer severe illness from COVID. That extra shot reinforces immunity levels that would have declined months after receiving the first booster shot. People over 50 are likely to suffer more severe outcomes, thus necessitating a fourth or second booster dose.
By doing this, we would have addressed the excess supply of millions of COVID vaccines, sped up booster uptake, and headed off possible surges in infection that can come with the entry of new COVID variants. Moving forward, the new government is given a clean slate to buy vaccines as demand dictates, and the private sector can provide for itself and mitigate risks based on their own situations.
We should think of these as interventions so we can prevent long illnesses and protect the economy. These two are closely related as we saw when we opened up the economy in the fourth quarter of 2021, and again in the first quarter of this year, when we experienced a GDP growth of 7.7 and 8.3 percent, respectively. There were no threats to our healthcare system then and Filipinos had recently either completed their primary doses or had just received their boosters.
What is at risk should infections rise is productivity. While is true that infections may not be so severe that they will require hospitalization, they do mean time off from work. In some cases, a COVID infection presents lingering effects like muscle and joint pain that lasts for months or even longer. These affect productivity and even quality of life.
Our economy is on an upswing and we can’t afford any disruptions, either from higher alert levels or lower productivity. We must do everything we can to keep the country healthy, and the economy will follow.
Just to give a picture of what the situation is like, I have asked for microenterprises to be spared from the wage adjustments. There are millions of microentrepreneurs, living hand-to-mouth; it may seem like a small amount, but many entrepreneurs are already saddled with debt. These include sari-sari stores, carinderias, food vendors, patahians… they need to keep going and generate jobs.
While the Philippines is today in a very good spot when it comes to infection levels, let us remember how we reached this point: our wall of immunity has been strengthened because of vaccinations.