The Department of Health (DOH) on Monday said the country’s quarantine status will not go down to Alert Level 1 anytime soon due to threat of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, despite its being classified as “minimal risk.”
“We’re not yet easing to Alert Level 1. I don’t like it, let’s remain under Alert Level 2 for now. Let’s observe and monitor first,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said in Filipino over radio dzBB.
This developed as the World Health Organization appealed to governments to intensify sequencing tests to detect Omicron in their countries.
Early indications of the severity of the Omicron COVID-19 variant are “a bit encouraging,” top US pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci said Sunday, while cautioning that more information was still needed.
The WHO previously warned it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, whether it causes more severe illness, and how effective treatments and vaccines are against it.
“We’re going to get the answers that everybody out there needs,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said.
The whole country is currently under Alert Level 2 until Dec. 15 after the province of Apayao was classified under Alert Level 2 starting Dec. 3, along with other regions including Metro Manila.
Duque cited reports from several European countries where COVID-19 cases were increasing again.
Duque said this was due to people not following minimum public health standards.
He said the Philippines was able to fight off COVID-19 surges before vaccine supplies became abundant by observing these health standards, such as the wearing of face masks and maintaining physical distance.
“I hope that the Omicron is not worse or more dangerous than the Delta variant, which we have somehow overcome based on the number of cases we have seen and reported to the public,” he said.
Duque said the government’s preparations for the Omicron variant was the same as its preparations for the Delta variant, including tight border controls.
The WHO has classified Omicron as a variant of concern, adding it is not yet clear if the variant is more transmissible compared to other variants or if it causes a more severe disease.
The University of the Philippines COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team said on Sunday that getting the primary doses of vaccines and booster shots thereafter could still help fight the Omicron variant should it enter the country.
Duque said that no Omicron variant has been detected yet from the latest genome sequencing on the samples taken from three travelers who came from Omicron-affected countries.
The DOH reported on Friday that there were 253 travelers from South Africa, three from Burkina Faso, and 541 from Egypt who arrived in the country from Nov. 15 to Nov. 29. Three of them tested positive for COVID-19.
“So far, there are 81 samples tested from those who underwent the RT-PCR testing. If they test positive, they will immediately be brought to the Philippine Genome Center for sequencing to know if the Omicron variant has already entered the country,” Duque said.
The Bureau of Quarantine also said on Sunday that most travelers from these Omicron-affected countries are still under quarantine and have not shown COVID-19 symptoms, so far.
BOQ Deputy Director Roberto Salvador Jr. noted the public has nothing to worry about as these travelers need to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine as mandated by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).
Meanwhile, the DOH said it is trying to locate eight more travelers from South Africa who arrived between Nov. 15 and 29, as efforts for contact tracing continue.
Results of the genome sequencing for the traveler from South Africa and 11 others who tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in the Philippines may be released Tuesday, the DOH said.
The DOH said the Philippines and most of the regions are now classified at minimal risk for COVID-19.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said during a media briefing that the Philippines recorded a negative two-week growth rate of -57 percent and had a low-risk average daily attack rate of .67 per 100,000 individuals.
“Nationally, we remain at minimal risk case classification,” Vergeire said.
Vergeire said the average daily cases in the country decreased by 397 cases or 42 percent this week to an average of 544 cases per day.
“These average cases per day are already nine times lower than those reported in July of 2021 at 4,982 and also lower than 1,130 cases per day observed from Dec. 27, 2020, from Jan. 2 of 2021,” Vergeire said.
“Looking at the epidemic curve of our major island groups and the NCR Plus areas, the majority of areas have been on a plateau since the start of November while the rest of Luzon showed signs of plateauing in the recent week,” she added.
Vergeire said the national health systems capacity was also at low risk.
National admissions and ICU admissions had declined by 21 percent and 26 percent, respectively, she said.
“At the national level, the percentage of critical cases had remained almost the same since mid-October. Followed by a slow decline starting November,” Vergeire said.
Severe cases also posted a decline since the end of October, she added.
The Philippines logged 543 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the total number of cases to 2,835,154.
There were 113 new fatalities, bringing the COVID-19 death toll to 49,499.
The DOH also reported 830 new recoveries, bringing the total number of recoveries to 2,772,107.
There were 13,548 active infections, 1,063 of which were asymptomatic, 5,545 of which were mild, 3,898 of which were moderate, 2,366 of which were severe, and 676 of which were critical.
The positivity rate was at 1.7 percent, based on test results of samples from 32,634 people on Dec. 4.
The country reported an additional 571 cases of the more transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19, the DOH said Monday, bringing their total to 7,848.
Vergeire said of the latest run that sequenced 629 samples, one tested positive for the Beta variant while another tested positive for the Alpha variant.
Also on Monday, the independent OCTA Research Group said the reproduction rate in Metro Manila decreased to 0.3 during the Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, 2021 period, much lower than the 0.92 recorded during the same period last year, and only slightly lower compared to the 0.36 logged during the Nov. 26 to Dec. 2, 2021 period.
Reproduction rate refers to the number of people who can be infected by one case. A reproduction number that is below 1 indicates that the transmission of the virus is slowing down.