The government should hold off going to COVID-19 Alert Level 0 until after the May 2022 elections, amid the threat of a new and highly infectious coronavirus variant.
Infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante told ABS-CBN TeleRadyo on Saturday the new “deltacron” variant recently identified in the United States ‘hold… and Europe could cause infections to surge in the Philippines once more.
“We have to be careful in saying we are OK, right? Because, again, a possible new variant of concern in the form of a recombination of the delta and the omicron,” Solante said.
An undersecretary of the Department of Health (DOH) on Saturday also dismissed claims the COVID-19 Alert Level 1 was considered the “new normal,” saying it should instead be an Alert Level 0.
“In the view of our experts, Alert Level 1 is not yet the new normal. It is just going to the normal, the new normal should be Alert Level 0,” Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje said at the Laging Handa briefing.
The OCTA Research group also said it is still too early to stop wearing face masks, even as officials have started to discuss the possibility of an Alert Level 0 after the number of new COVID-19 cases stayed low even following an easy Alert Level 1 in several areas, including Metro Manila.
OCTA fellow Dr. Guido David said Alert Level 0 would be no different from the current Alert Level 1 if it meant easing restrictions and opening more businesses in the country.
“It is difficult to comment if we are ready for [Alert Level 0] if we don’t know what it covers but if it means removing face masks, I think it is too early for that,” David told GMA News Online.
In other developments, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) on Saturday reiterated that only students fully vaccinated from COVID-19 would be allowed to attend in-person classes, as more higher education institutions were expected to resume under looser restrictions.
Authorities have so far administered a total of 836,162 COVID-19 jabs during the 4th round of the National Vaccination Days, the DOH said on Saturday.
Solante added that initial data showed those infected by “deltacron”—a combination of the highly infectious Delta and Omicron strains of the coronavirus—had mild symptoms, which he attributed to vaccination.
He also warned that political rallies and other activities related to the 2022 elections in May could be potential superspreaders.
“There’s still community transmission, the waning immunity (from vaccines) factor, all of these are all factors as there could be a possible surge and spike in cases, especially during this time of the political climate natin,” Solante said.
The doctor called on the government to provide additional protection to populations vulnerable to COVID-19 by increasing vaccinations and the giving away of vaccine boosters.
David said the 598 new cases on Friday was below the prediction of 650 which OCTA made. There were 149 in the NCR, 90 in Calabarzon 90, and 66 in the Western Visayas.
The national positive rate, David said, was at 3.3%.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III earlier said the government was now studying the possibility of further easing the COVID-19 status in many areas to Alert Level 0.
Duque said the country had recorded less than a thousand cases daily for six consecutive days while the National Capital Region (NCR) and 38 more areas nationwide are still under the lowest level until March 15.
He said the elements of Alert Level 0 still would have to be discussed by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, along with other government advisers.
“Some questions need to be answered regarding Alert Level 0, for instance, will masks be removed? Is it okay to disregard hand hygiene, and are ventilations adequate?” Duque said.
Duque said there are many more questions that need to be answered and the expert panels and technical advisory group are studying them. They will give recommendations to the IATF in the coming days, he added.
Under Alert Level 1, intrazonal and interzonal travel shall be allowed without regard to age and comorbidities.
All establishments, persons, or activities, meanwhile, are allowed to operate, work, or be undertaken at full on-site or venue/seating capacity provided it is consistent with minimum public health standards.