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We have stepped up our campaign to push booster vaccinations. In truth, it was never a question of if, but only of when. I have been consistent in sounding the alarm: if we don’t vaccinate and booster more aggressively, we could experience rising cases in the second half of the year. While we remained active in promoting boosters, it has now become more urgent.
This week, the World Health Organization warned that the Philippines could have as many as 300,000 active COVID-19 cases by the end of May. This could happen if Filipinos become complacent with observing public health standards. The projection seems quite possible considering a recent report by the Department of Health that there has been a gradual increase of COVID cases in 14 areas. This includes some cities in the National Capital Region, as well as in neighboring Cavite, and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
OCTA Research’s Prof. Ranjit Rye told us that the scenario of rising cases is very possible. He said they have been closely following the situation in China and the possibility that new sub-variants could emerge. Variants are particularly troublesome as they might challenge vaccine efficacy. An unvaccinated population is where new variants are born; that is why we have to vaccinate and booster enough people to keep up economic activity.
Booster vaccinations remain very poor. We are seeing, for example, that as of April 13, only 13.7 percent of Filipinos boostered despite 74.1 percent having already been fully vaccinated. Vaccinations, in general, have slowed; from a high of 1.5 million a day, we’re down to 220,000 a day. This could be due to several factors—fatigue, vaccine hesitancy, preoccupation with the elections—but it is nonetheless alarming. As I wrote before, the last mile is the most difficult part in any rollout.
We’re also seeing even more mobility with the trifecta of the Holy Week break, the Ramadan, and the political rallies bringing more people to gather and move about. Thankfully, face masks are still being worn, and the President has promised that he will continue to mandate their wearing until his term expires on June 30. But it’s also been observed that people are no longer practicing safe distancing and are gathering in large mixed groups.
We need to balance this with increased vaccinations and boostering.
Why push so hard with the booster shots? We’re trying to prevent people from getting severely ill and overwhelming the healthcare system. We want to maintain the Alert Level 1 status, but we need people to stay healthy and keep the engines of the economy running so we can generate enough taxes to pay back the trillions we now owe because we borrowed more than we usually do to fight COVID. We cannot, literally, afford to lose this war. Our MSMEs have already lost so much time and revenue in the last 25 months.
The good news is, we have within our reach the tools that can prevent this looming disaster. Those who have already taken their primary vaccinations have proven that they can go and get vaccinated, and are perfectly capable of taking a second (if Jannsen) or third (if it’s the other brands) shot.
Another good news is we already have the COVID vaccines and they are widely available and free unlike, say, the flu or pneumonia vaccine. There are some 27 million vaccines expiring in July and 53 million more are in storage. That’s more than enough to ensure that we won’t have to come to a point that we will have to lock down again.
The Philippines currently has 67 million fully vaccinated individuals, still short by 23 million from its target of 90 million. In addition, it has a little over 53 million individuals comprising seniors, teenagers aged 12 to 17, and adults who have yet to receive their booster shots.
We have 80 million vaccine doses ready for use, enough to give booster shots to the 53 million who need it, and even address the 23 million vaccination shortfall. It’s that simple.
Or maybe not. We still have some issues that need to be addressed so we can head off having 300,000 active cases. First is the fact that one can still be called fully vaccinated despite not having received a booster shot. This doesn’t make sense as we all know that antibodies wane unless strengthened by a booster shot. Which leads me to the second and third issues: Boosters are not yet mandated for the general population, and first boosters and second boosters are not yet approved for two crucial segments of the population: the 12 to 17 year-olds, and the seniors and the immunocompromised, respectively.
My suggestions: require booster cards as proof of vaccination, put an expiry date on the original (primary) vaccination cards, and allow first boosters for 12 to 17 year-olds, and a second booster for the vulnerable population as soon as possible.
A simple push for boosters can go a long way. That’s why I am grateful to the medical experts who have come out to join us in our campaign to Booster to the Max.
Among the medical experts who have lent their expertise to the campaign are DOH Secretary Francisco Duque; Philippine College of Physicians president Dr. Maricar Limpin; the vaccine expert panel’s Dr. Nina Gloriani and Dr. Rontgene Solante; IATF special adviser Dr. Ted Herbosa; infectious diseases expert Dr. Edsel Salvana; former DOH Secretary Dr. Esperanza Cabral; OCTA Research fellows Dr. Benjamin Co, Fr. Nic Austriaco and Prof. Guido David; Philippine Society of Pathologists president Dr. Roberto Padua; and health reform advocate Dr. Tony Leachon.
Filipinos cannot afford to be complacent. As we’ve seen in the experience of other countries, the primary vaccinations do not guarantee that the antibodies will not wane over time. While vaccines do protect us from severe illness and death, these have to be kept up-to-date so we can maintain our wall of immunity.