The government will reimpose the face shield requirement in all public areas once the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is detected locally and the current alert level for COVID-19 is raised, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said Monday night.
"Of course, when Omicron enters and the alert level is raised, we will reimpose face shields," Año said in President Rodrigo Duterte’s regular televised “Talk to the People.”
The President said he would support the mandatory use of face shields if the government task force on the COVID-19 pandemic recommends it as a measure against the Omicron variant.
“I would suggest to the task force to make a statement whether or not really to [reimpose the face shield requirement because] when it comes to Omicron, since we have a dearth of data on this,” he said.
“In the meantime, if—prudence would just dictate that maybe we’ll be strict again and to the Task Force, you have to sort it out whether we have to reimpose the shield because it can add protection,” Duterte added.
Duterte issued the statement when he convened the National Task Force (NTF) Against COVID-19 and several medical experts in Malacañang to discuss the latest updates on COVID-19 Omicron variant, as well as government efforts to contain it once it is detected in the country.
The President assured the public that the government is ramping up preparations for its possible entry and vowed to implement all measures to keep people safe.
Local hospitals are already preparing for the entry of the Omicron variant. San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, for instance, is stocking up on its inventory of personal protective equipment (PPE) for its health workers and more medicines for its patients.
"First [preparation] is the inventory of PPEs and anti-viral drugs like remdesivir and tocilizumab. We now have more time to prepare for it and have stocks of
medications," said Dr. Rontgene Solante, the government’s infectious disease expert.
"The number of cases in the past weeks have made us more prepared for the next surge," he added.
The Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines Inc. (PHAPI) said nothing has changed with their preparations against COVID-19 but they continued to worry about their shortage of health workers, who had resigned at the height of the pandemic.
"In hospitals, our limitation now is the number of nurses. But right now, although it has stopped until the end of the year, maybe next year we will see new resignations," said PHAPI President Jose Rene de Grano.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said it was a matter of time before the Omicron variant reached the country.
"It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, so it will really enter the country, just as we have experienced with Alpha [and] Delta among the variants of concern," he said during Monday’s Talk to the People with President Duterte.
To prepare for the entry of the Omicron variant, Duque said minimum health standards must be enforced.
He also recommended the use of face shields in areas that are crowded, where there is close contact and confined and enclosed spaces.
Duque also said the trajectory of the vaccination rate in the country must be maintained to achieve population protection.
"We need to widen and increase the vaccination coverage to reach population protection," Duque said.
He also underscored the need to prepare the health care system for the worst case scenario.
"In case there will be a sustained high community transmission on account of this possible Omicron variant entry in our country—let's take advantage of our low number of cases and prepare the health system’s capacity, again for the worst-case scenario," Duque said.
He said the government might reimpose the previous pandemic response in anticipation of a surge in cases due to the new variant, which was first detected in South Africa.
Año noted that the face shield requirement was not totally discarded as part of the COVID-19 response strategy. He said the policy on face shields was just integrated into the Alert Level System used nationwide.
In jurisdictions under Alert Level 1, 2, 3, the use of face shield is voluntary, while those under Alert Level 4, local government units (LGUs) have the discretion to make its use mandatory. Under Alert Level 5, face shield use is mandatory.
Año also told the President that the government has already instituted border controls and suggested intensified monitoring of the country’s porous southern border. (See full story online at manilastandard.net)
The head of the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) said on Tuesday that the government must impose stricter measures on all travelers entering the Philippines, regardless of whether or not they come from countries that have already recorded cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
In an interview on ANC, Dr. Maricar Limpin said imposing a single policy on all travelers would show there is no discrimination and ensure that borders are being controlled.
“We do not actually know who among the travelers will actually carry this new variant. So I think it is safer if we apply one policy for all. There is always wisdom in being consistent. And one consistency will be to apply one policy for all travelers regardless of where they’re coming from,” she said.
“So, putting them immediately on quarantine as soon as they come in and then testing them on the fifth day, I think that will [suffice] to really make sure that we will be able to contain the entry of the virus into the country,” Limpin said.
Limpin said border controls are still the best way to prevent the entry of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
The government body tasked with controlling the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines has banned travelers from seven European countries, in addition to the seven African nations it earlier placed under the travel red list.
Travelers coming from countries in the red list are not allowed to enter the Philippines, regardless of their vaccination status.
Travelers from green and yellow list countries, however, are allowed into the country, provided they follow testing and quarantine protocols as mandated by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) against COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the Department of Tourism (DOT) said it is working closely with the IATF to prevent the entry of the Omicron variant.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat noted that the government has suspended until further notice the program allowing fully-vaccinated travelers from non-visa-required green countries to enter the Philippines starting Dec. 1.
To limit inbound mobility Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, South Africa, Botswana,
Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique were placed in the red list, for two weeks starting Nov. 28.
All incoming flights and passengers from the red list countries will be denied entry even if they are full-vaccinated.
Only returning Filipinos, through either government initiated or non-government-initiated repatriation flights will be allowed to enter the Philippines.
Tourism industry stakeholders, especially the airlines, fear the new controls will be a setback again for an industry already reeling from a downturn.
Despite these new developments, the DOT will continue to push for the vaccination of all active tourism workers around the country.
“So far, we have already vaccinated 76.84 percent or 242,010 of the total eligible tourism work force,” Puyat said.
The DOT, which has been preparing to open up the country’s resorts and tourism establishments to inbound leisure travelers, is determined to keep the steady recover of domestic tourism, she said.
A member of the Department of Health (DOH)-Technical Advisory Group on Monday suggested ways to control the spread of the Omicron, as the variant of COVID-19 has yet to be detected in the Philippines.
Dr. Edsel Salvana pushed for ramped up vaccinations against the coronavirus, better ventilation indoors, and effective border controls.
Salvana said the Omicron variant may be less susceptible to vaccines in preventing infection but the efficacy of vaccines "will not be zero."
"Vaccines will still protect against severe infection," Salvana said at President Rodrigo Duterte's Talk to the People on Monday night.
The Philippines is in the middle of a three-day national vaccination campaign from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1. Over 500,000 people received COVID-19 vaccine doses on Monday.
Salvana also said Filipinos must still follow the minimum public health standards.
Measures used against other variants such as the use of face masks and face shields and physical distance would still work, Salvana said.
Meanwhile, the executive director of the Philippine Genome Center, Cynthia Saloma, said they need to examine more samples, especially from Filipinos returning from overseas, as they have yet to detect the Omicron variant in the country.
"So far we have done about 18,000 whole genome sequences and we went back in our database and have not found a single Omicron case. So going forward, I think we need to backtrack samples from early November," Saloma said.
“If they can send us the positive samples from airports and other parts of the Philippines, we can do more intense sequencing," she added.
Saloma also said they will start sequencing in the Visayas and Mindanao next month.