The Department of Health (DOH) on Wednesday adopted a shortened quarantine period for people who will test positive for COVID-19 or are close contacts of COVID-positive patients but are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic.
DOH spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said the isolation for fully vaccinated individuals with mild COVID who are symptomatic or asymptomatic “has been reduced to seven days from the onset of symptoms” from the previous 10-day isolation period.
“Ten days isolation is retained for those who are partially or unvaccinated, and those with moderate symptoms regardless of vaccination status,” she said in an online forum.
The 21-day isolation period has been retained for those with severe and critical COVID, as well as for those who are immunocompromised.
Fully-vaccinated close contacts of a COVID-19 positive individual will likewise be reduced from seven days to only five days, Vergeire said.
On Tuesday, DOH Undersecretary and treatment czar Leopoldo Vega said that amid the threat of the Omicron variant, the department wants to shorten the isolation of those who have completed their primary vaccine doses and tested positive for COVID-19 but do not experience any symptoms.
He said this would “harmonize the isolation and quarantine protocols” for health workers and the general public.
However, the head of the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) has urged the government to think twice about its plan to shorten the quarantine period of people who test positive for COVID-19 but who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic.
Dr. Maricar Limpin, president of PCP, said cutting the quarantine period of health workers was understandable due to the surge in cases, but the government should slow down on doing the same thing for the public.
Last week, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) approved a shortened isolation and quarantine period for fully vaccinated health workers infected with or exposed to COVID-19 from 10 days to only.
This was decided after hospitals raised concerns about being short staffed amid a surge in cases.
An infectious disease expert, Dr. Rontgene Solante of the San Lazaro Hospital, said shortening the quarantine period was not recommended, particularly for older people and those with comorbidities.
Solante said the shorter quarantine period can be applied but said this must be implemented properly.
“What’s crucial here is how this will be implemented in the public, with the correct information and a correct evaluation,” he said.
With vaccination against COVID-19, a patient’s viral load would be reduced earlier, which makes the disease less transmissible, Solante said.
On the other hand, Solante said offering fourth or fifth doses of COVID-19 vaccines should only be given to immune-compromised populations like cancer and post-transplant patients.
Solante said this population’s uptake of antibodies from COVID-19 vaccines was very low.
On Tuesday, Galvez said the government may extend the giving of primary doses of COVID-19 vaccine to up to a fourth dose.
Galvez cited the Vaccine Expert Panel as saying that people might need five doses of the vaccine to reach full immunity against COVID-19.
Facing opposition from health workers who said the shortened quarantine period put them and their patients at risk, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the shortened isolation for medical frontliners was not absolute but discretionary, and depend on the situation of the hospitals and medical facilities.
Those on the ground would know if the quarantine period of health care workers will be shortened considering the number of patients they are catering to, Duque said.
“The shortened isolation for health care workers… is not absolute. It’s discretionary to the hospitals’ infection prevention [and] control committee or the provincial health office because they know on the ground what will be the risk-benefit considerations given how many more patients they are admitting,” Duque said.
Vergeire earlier said that fully vaccinated health care workers infected with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic or have a mild or moderate case should be isolated for at least five days as against the 10-day isolation period for the fully vaccinated general population infected with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic or have a mild or moderate case.
Following this, the DOH said it will propose to the IATF a shortened quarantine period of five days for people who test positive for COVID-19 but are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic.
At the same time, Vergeire said the shortened isolation would not put health workers at risk.
“The government will never implement a policy that would put patients and health care workers at risk. Everything we implement is based on science and evidence,” Vergeire said.
Vergeire said that there are also other countries that have adopted these protocols because of contingencies and the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant.
“This was done based on the risk assessment of our hospitals if they could afford it and if it would be more beneficial for our health care system and our patients,” she said.
Dr. Anna Ong-Lim backed Vergeire, saying that despite the shortened quarantine, health care workers are recommended to continue wearing face masks especially when facing patients to ensure that they would not transmit any residual of the virus, if there are any.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Edsel Salvana also stressed that the protocols are not automatic and the hospitals still have discretion if they would abide by them.
“Again, it’s not an ideal situation. That’s why they’re called contingency or crisis mode. As much as possible, we wouldn’t want to invoke that, but if the situation is critical and there is a danger that there will be no health workers in the wards, this is the time that the hospital infection control can invoke this as a last resort,” Salvana said.