The Department of Health recommended expanding the travel ban to Hong Kong after the detection of the coronavirus variant of concern Omicron in the territory.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said he has already submitted a formal recommendation to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to include Hong Kong in the list of countries covered by the ban, which currently covers South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique.
“We are waiting for the approval of our recommendation. We have many OFWs [overseas Filipino workers] who would want to come home for Christmas,” Duque said as Hong Kong recorded Thursday its first two cases of Omicron, which has been found to have 32 spike protein mutations compared to the 13 to 17 seen in the Delta variant.
A member of the independent OCTA Research Group on Saturday also appealed to the government to keep the entire country under Alert Level 2 until January next year amid the threat of the Omicron variant.
“If we can remain at Alert Level 2, that would make us ready just in case [we detect the presence of Omicron in the country] and we can contain the spread,” OCTA member Dr. Guido David said.
DOH..Health reform advocate Dr. Tony Leachon likewise discouraged the government from downgrading the community quarantine system to Alert Level 1.
“We are still in the early phase of administering booster shots and we also have to inoculate children. We should take it slow. A merrier and safer Christmas is the better choice so let’s keep it at Alert Level 2 so we have a really safe holiday season. We can shift to Alert Level 1 by January 2022 because by then we would have already vaccinated at least 50 percent of the population,” Leachon said.
Duque said Omicron could be a game changer even for a country like the Philippines where there is already a downward trend in COVID-19 infections.
“The downward trend might change if we find out that the variant is really dangerous. That is why we have to take precautions. Proper precaution includes stricter international border controls,” the Health chief said.
DOH Health Promotion Bureau/ Disease Prevention and Control Bureau Director Dr. Beverly Ho said it would take time for experts to determine if the new variant would have an effect on the efficacy of existing vaccines.
“Even the World Health Organization said it will take time for us to know because it will still be studied in laboratories,” Ho said.
“But for infectious diseases like this, it is impossible for us to close our borders permanently. Eventually, the variant will enter, as evidenced by the Delta variant, which has spread around the world. So it was not a matter of whether it could enter, but really a matter of when,” she added.
Ho said variants of concern like Omicron are often more transmissible and have “higher chances” of causing severe COVID-19 among the infected.
“But in any case, our sure protection against this is getting the vaccine, good ventilation, wearing of mask, avoiding crowds, and washing of hands,” she said.
The Philippines on Saturday reported 899 new COVID-19 cases – the fourth consecutive day when the daily tally stood at below 1,000 infections.
Active cases stood at 17,052.