The Philippines on Wednesday expanded its ban on travelers by prohibiting those from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, amid the resurgence in COVID-19 cases in India and South Asia.
This developed as six travelers from India, who entered the Philippines before stricter border restrictions took effect, have tested positive for COVID-19, and six others are still being traced where they are now, the Department of Health said Wednesday.
As the coronavirus surged uncontrollably in India—with that nation's daily death toll hitting a record at almost 3,800 amid more than 380,000 new infections -- the DOH said it was unsure if the South African variant of the virus had spread to local communities, even if it has the most cases among the variants of concern detected by the Philippine Genome Center (PGC).
Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea said travelers from India’s neighboring countries would not be allowed to enter the Philippines from May 7 to May 14.
The ban covers travelers who have been in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka 14 days before their arrival in the Philippines.
The Philippines earlier banned travelers from India from entering the Philippines from April 29 to May 14 amid the surge of COVID-19 cases in the South Asian country.
A COVID-19 variant first detected in India is also one of the variants of concern being monitored by Philippine authorities.
However, of over 7,000 samples submitted for genome sequencing to the PGC, the B1351 SARS-CoV-2 variant—the virus that causes COVID-19—first found in South Africa had the most hits.
So far, the Philippines has recorded 1,075 cases of the B.1.351 (South Africa) variant, 948 cases of the B.1.1.7 (United Kingdom), 157 cases of the P.3 (Philippines), and two cases of the P.1 (Brazil) variant.
Medialdea’s memo said Filipinos and foreign passengers merely transitioning through India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh will not be considered as having come from or having been to these countries.
This is if they stayed at the airport the whole time and were not cleared for entry into these countries by their immigration authorities.
Likewise, Filipinos and foreign passengers merely transitioning through the five countries covered by the exemption are also not required to complete a full 14-day facility-based quarantine, provided they complied with existing testing and quarantine protocols of the national government.
Meanwhile, a total of 110 travelers from India have undergone COVID-19 testing, said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, during an online briefing.
“Six turned out to be positive and it (the report) is now submitted to the Philippine Genome Center for whole genome sequencing,” she said.
Travelers who were in transit or arrived in the Philippines before it took effect were not covered.
“That’s the hope, that we can prevent the entry of specific variants into the country,” Vergeire said.
The DOH will also recommend that incoming travelers be tested for COVID-19 seven or eight days from their arrival, when their viral load is high, to weed out positive cases.
“Whatever the variant may be, we need to stay protected so continue doing the minimum public health standards,” Vergeire said.
The Philippines logged on Wednesday 5,685 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 1,073,555, as five laboratories failed to submit their data on time, the Department of Health reported.
According to the DOH, the low figure is due to the low number of samples received by laboratories last Saturday and Sunday.
A total of 62,713 active cases were reported, which is 5.8 percent of the total. Of the active cases, 94.4 percent were mild, 1.8 percent were asymptomatic, 1.2 percent were critical, 1.6 percent were severe, and 1.02 were moderate.
The DOH also reported that 8,961 persons recently recovered, bringing the total recoveries to 993,042, which is 92.5 percent of the total.
The DOH also reported 178 new fatalities, bringing the death toll to 17,800, which is 1.66 percent of the total.
Metro Manila and Calabarzon areas have most of COVID-19 cases caused by coronavirus variants first detected in the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7) and South Africa (B.1.351), the DOH said Wednesday.
Vergeire, however, said that local experts and the World Health Organization had not yet determined if there is community transmission of these variants, meaning the cases are no longer linked to one another.
Vergeire said the National Capital Region had 602 B.1.351 variant cases, 358 B.1.1.7 cases, and 39 P.3 cases. Calabarzon, meanwhile, has 121 cases of the B.1.351 variant, 145 B.1.1.7 cases, and six P.3 cases.
Vergeire said that the selection of samples for genome sequencing is purposive or limited to clusters of COVID-19 cases, individuals with links to other variant cases, and returning overseas Filipinos.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health would recommend that travelers who arrive in the country be tested for coronavirus on the 7th or 8th day of their quarantine, the agency said on Wednesday.
Vergeire said, currently, Filipinos and foreigners who enter the country were tested on the 5th or 6th day of their isolation.
However, Vergeire said new evidence showed that the viral load remained high until the seventh or eighth day.
“That’s why we are revising again our protocol and we will be presenting to IATF to adopt this kind of implementation,” she said in an interview on ANC, referring to the government’s inter-agency COVID-19 task force.
“We want to be sure that we get to identify all of these travelers coming in accurately so that we can isolate properly and we can break the chain of transmission, but this is still for approval in the IATF,” she said.
Dismayed over the government's slow vaccination, Senator Richard Gordon projected that the country will attain "herd immunity" in the next 14.1 years with the rate the country was going.
He said authorities must vaccinate 70 million Filipinos to reach the goal of herd immunity.
"So, we need to vaccinate 240 people in a day. So that's 240 x 365 days, to achieve this," said Gordon during the virtual press conference of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
Aside from the slow inoculation, Gordon said the country was late in acquisition of the anti-COVID vaccines.
He pointed out that "somebody dropped the ball," but nobody admitted responsibility.
Gordon said the absence of vaccines contributed to the surge in COVID-19 cases last month although the country had been on a quarantine for more than a year.