After nearly two years of varying degrees of lockdown, the country is now preparing for a transition to a “new normal”—a possible shift from a pandemic to an endemic approach to COVID-19.
Acting presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles said the government is currently formulating the Phase 5 of the National Action Plan that will cover shifts in protocols and policies on how to live with the novel coronavirus.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said part of Phase 5 is to institutionalize the alert leveling system “so that anytime the situation calls for it, we can readily calibrate the equivalent response for every level of this alert leveling station.”
NAP Phase 4, according to National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) Undersecretary Rosemarie Edillon, focused on balancing health protocols and the need to keep the economy afloat.
Phase 5, Edillon said, seeks to empower Filipinos on how to interpret COVID-19 information and guide them on how to act accordingly to “bring back a sense of new normal, to actually shift toward a new normal.”
Elsewhere in the world, several countries have already made inroads toward a pandemic exit plan.
In Europe, the World Health Organization has expressed optimism the region is moving into a new “endgame” phase. Denmark has bid face masks and health passes goodbye, becoming the first EU country to lift all domestic restrictions. France has removed the mandatory wearing of face masks outdoors while Switzerland said it is planning to lift all COVID curbs by mid-February.
In Asia, Thailand has resumed its quarantine-free travel scheme this month, with full-vaccinated travelers allowed to enter the kingdom under a “test and go” scheme.
Ahead of the NAP Phase 5 rollout, the Duterte administration already suspended its COVID-19 risk classification for inbound travelers, allowing all fully-vaccinated returning Filipinos and even foreigners traveling for business and leisure to enter without need to undergo facility-based quarantine starting February 10.
According to Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, an endemic state is when cases of a disease are “stable,” “constant,” or “predictable,” but it does not necessarily equate to a milder form of the disease.
“There is that equilibrium between the level of transmission and the level of immunity of an area. With the NAP Phase 5, we are now transitioning. We are preparing our system so that when the time comes that we’re at an endemic state, we will be able to cope and we are resilient and we are prepared,” Vergeire said.
According to vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., a more intensified COVID-19 vaccination program is crucial to the country’s smooth transition from a pandemic to an endemic approach.
“We cannot have a safe transition from pandemic to endemic if not everyone is vaccinated,” said Galvez, who is also the chief of the National Task Force (NTF) Against COVID-19.
“Vaccination is the game changer,” Duque added.
Presidential adviser for COVID-19 response Vince Dizon said the country will likely begin with the transition this month.
“I think we will begin with the transition this February. We just need to bring down the cases to the levels that we had in late last year, below 1,000 cases per day, then we can begin the process of transitioning from a pandemic framework to a more endemic framework,” Dizon said.
Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion said the private sector will also be coming up with an “exit plan” from the pandemic.
Economic managers have warned the economy will lose at least P3 billion a week in productivity contributions when there is a shift to a more restrictive Alert Level 3 in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, such as what happened last month when cases surged, likely due to the Omicron variant.
“The idea is to reach a point wherein there are no more alert levels. I think we will eventually get there. I think by March, sometime that period, or maybe April, we will be ready to move out from alert levels,” Concepcion said.
“We have to revive these sectors that have been closed for the past 22 months,” he added.