The Department of Health (DOH) prefers to keep the wearing of face masks mandatory while the COVID-19 pandemic persists, its officer-in-charge said Thursday.
This was the DOH position taken during the first meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said.
The IATF had earlier recommended making masks optional outdoors after Cebu City defied the national mask mandate and ignored an appeal by the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG).
On Thursday, Vergeire also said teachers and students attending face-to-face classes must continue to mask up as these are held indoors.
“The position of the Department of Health is for us to continue masking but there were several data that were presented also that have led to this decision,” Vergeire said during an interview with ANC’s “Headstart.”
The DILG, for example, said the Philippines and Myanmar are the only member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that continue to implement mandatory mask rules in outdoor areas.
The DILG data also showed that tourist arrivals have increased in countries with relaxed mask mandates while fresh coronavirus infections have decreased.
However, Vergeire stressed that IATF’s recommendation would only be implemented in low-risk settings and low-risk individuals.
“So, meaning this will only be done outdoors, in settings where it is not crowded, in settings where there is good ventilation,” she said.
“This will be done among low-risk individuals, meaning not the senior citizens, not those with comorbidities, not the children, and definitely not those having symptoms of COVID-19,” she said.
Meanwhile, a former government adviser said the move to lift the mask mandate was premature.
Dr. Tony Leachon, a former adviser of the National Task Force Against COVID-19, said that only a few Filipinos have received their boosters against the coronavirus disease.
“Looking at the numbers right now, we have a booster rate of only around 18 percent or 18 million, and we have primary vaccines about 72 million,” Leachon told ANC’s “Rundown.”
“I think we’re the lowest in Asia, Southeast Asia in terms of booster rate, while the rest which have opened the economy have 90 percent vaccination and around 80 percent in terms of the booster rate,” he said.
Leachon said that the country’s COVID-19 positivity rate is still at 11.6 percent—higher than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 5 percent benchmark.
“The numbers right now in terms of viral transmission are not actually controlled,” he said.
Both the booster and positivity rates must be considered before lifting mask mandates in particular areas, he said.
Infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante said the lifting of mask mandates must be done gradually around the country.
He agrees with Leachon that it’s “not time yet” to lift mask mandates.
“We still need to carefully study this part of the policy,” he said.
Vergeire said COVID-19 cases were “manageable.”
Severe and critical cases are on a plateau while hospital admissions are less than 30 percent, she added.
Vergeire also said she hoped that relaxing the mask mandate would encourage more people to get additional jabs to protect themselves from COVID-19.
As of Sept. 4, only 18.2 million have received their first booster dose while more than 2.3 million have received their second shot.
In total, over 72.6 Filipinos are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Vergeire called on parents and guardians to ensure that their children would still wear their face masks in schools so as to avoid the risk of COVID-19 infection.
Vergeire admitted that the uptake for booster shots has been low, despite an ambitious plan to give them to 23.8 million people in the first 100 days of the Marcos administration.
She said that so far, only around 2.3 million Filipinos have been boosted under the government’s PinasLakas campaign.
“We think that we will not be able to reach that target right now because the booster uptake is slow. What we will do is a phased approach where by Oct. 8 or the 100th day, we expect 30 percent of our eligible population to be boosted. This will continue until the end of the year,” she said.
In other developments:
• Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin, a former Health secretary, called on the DOH to preposition antiviral medicines for COVID-19 as the Philippines relaxes its mask protocol. Garin is among the lawmakers who pushed for the optional mask policy provided that the booster rate reaches 70 percent. But based on DOH data, the booster rate is only at 21.76 percent.
• The DOH said President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is inclined to provide a budget for the procurement of second-generation COVID-19 vaccines that may be more effective against the Omicron variant. Vergeire made the comment after ACT Teachers party-list Rep. France Castro decried cuts to some of DOH’s programs, pointing out that the P2.72-billion budget for the procurement of Omicron vaccine booster shots is unfunded so far.