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PH on heightened alert for COVID-19

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As the Philippines goes on “heightened alert” as a surge of COVID-19 cases in China triggers global concern, travelers from the communist country now face restrictions when entering more than a dozen countries, with Australia the latest to demand a negative test before arrival.

In a Dec. 31 memorandum, all Philippine Department of Health-Centers for Health Development (DOH-CHD) were instructed to prepare and augment resources, especially telemedicine providers, in case of an increase in patients with respiratory symptoms.

All CHDs were enjoined to ramp up information dissemination on the importance of layers of protection, including wearing masks, getting the most updated vaccines, and self-isolation if unwell.

Meanwhile, Australia’s health minister on Sunday cited Beijing’s “lack of comprehensive information” about COVID cases as the reasoning behind the travel requirement, which will take effect on January 5.

The move will “safeguard Australia from the risk of potential new emerging variants,” he said.

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In recent days, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have also imposed either a negative COVID test requirement or testing upon arrival for travelers from China.

Canada cited “the limited epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data available” on recent COVID cases in China for its negative test demand.

Meanwhile, Morocco moved to ban all arrivals from China on Saturday, “to avoid a new wave of contaminations in Morocco and all its consequences.”

The flurry of global travel restrictions began as countries anticipated a surge in Chinese visitors after Beijing announced a mandatory quarantine for inbound passengers would end on January 8.

Last month, Beijing abruptly began dismantling its “zero-COVID” containment policy of lockdowns and mass testing, three years after the coronavirus first emerged in the city of Wuhan.

As COVID overwhelms Chinese hospitals and crematoriums, officials have insisted that the wave is “under control” despite acknowledging that the true scale of infections is “impossible” to track.

The World Health Organization has called the precautionary measures “understandable” in light of the lack of outbreak information provided by Beijing.

But the European branch of the International Airports Council—which represents more than 500 airports in 55 European countries—said the restrictions were not justified or risk-based.

European countries will meet next week to discuss a joint response to the issue, with incoming EU presidency holder Sweden saying it was “seeking a common policy for the entire EU when it comes to the introduction of possible entry restrictions”.

In the Philippines, DOH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said:

“[T]o ensure minimal local transmission in anticipation of possible increases, all CHDs are likewise directed to continue the strict implementation of the updated guidelines on Minimum Public Health Standards, as aligned with Department Memorandum 2022-0433, as well as other relevant COVID-19 surveillance and mitigation measures.”

Vergeire reiterated DOH’s directive to the Bureau of Quarantine and relevant offices to intensify monitoring and implementation of border protocols for incoming individuals, including those from China, at all ports of entry.

Agencies were also ordered to closely coordinate with seaport and airport authorities “for possible re-establishment of testing of inbound travelers from high alert countries.”

The DOH on Sunday reported 464 new COVID-19 cases, the lowest single-day tally in four days and the 10th straight day of fewer than 1,000 new cases.

The tally of active cases decreased to 13,061—after nine days of declining cases, it is the lowest total in nearly six months, since the 13,021 active cases on July 9, 2022.

The country’s COVID-19 caseload now totals 4,064,779 infections. Total recoveries increased by 760 cases to 3,986,321, while deaths rose by 12 to 65,397.

At the same time, the DOH said hospitals are ready for a rise in COVID-19 infections.

Asked if the Philippines would also experience a surge in COVID-19 cases as China did, Vergeire said there was a big difference in population size between the two countries, which also had different approaches to combating the pandemic.

Nevertheless, it was always possible that COVID-19 cases would rise again in the Philippines, she said but added that the health system was ready for such a possibility.

Vergeire also said that many Filipinos still opted to wear face masks, despite it being made voluntary.

“You choose and we choose to wear the masks so we can be safe, and I think that is going to work for us,” she said.

The DOH also recommended to the Office of the President (OP) a further extension of the state of calamity in the Philippines due to COVID-19.

‘Light of hope’

While a few major Chinese cities seem to be emerging from the current wave of infections, under-resourced smaller cities and rural areas have been hit especially hard.

In response to the outbreak, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said on Sunday that she is “willing to provide necessary assistance based on humanitarian concerns,” but did not specify what kind of aid might be extended to Beijing, which considers the self-ruled island a breakaway province.

But in his televised New Year address, Chinese President Xi Jinping struck an optimistic note.

“Epidemic prevention and control is entering a new phase… Everyone is working resolutely, and the light of hope is right in front of us,” Xi said in a speech broadcast on state media on Saturday.

It was Xi’s second time commenting on the outbreak this week. On Monday, he called for measures to “effectively protect people’s lives”.

Despite the jump in infections, large crowds still gathered for New Year’s Eve celebrations in Shanghai and Wuhan, although some social media users said the festivities seemed more subdued than in past years. Willie Casas with AFP

China on Sunday reported more than 5,100 new infections and one death linked to Covid out of its population of 1.4 billion—but the figures appear to be out of step with the reality on the ground. With AFP

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