Optional masking outdoors is one of the factors driving the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in the country, the Department of Health admitted Tuesday.
This is as the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines Inc. (PHAPI) called on the public to keep wearing face masks amid the reported increase in coronavirus cases, which may overwhelm its members anew.
Malacañang announced on September 12 that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. signed an executive order allowing the optional masking in open spaces and non-crowded outdoor areas with good ventilation.
Although the rise in COVID-19 cases cannot be attributed to a single factor alone, DOH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire admitted in a press briefing that not wearing masks outdoors was a factor.
“Expectedly, cases are increasing because of increased mobility, face-to-face classes, and maybe because this factor of optional outdoor masking is coming into play. But the important thing is, severe and critical cases at hospitals should not rise,” she said.
Vergeire explained that infections are due to multiple factors, including a person’s activities and lifestyle, the characteristics of circulating variants, the environment, and the opening up of different sectors.
PHAPI president Dr. Jose de Grano also pointed out that the removal of the face mask mandate does not directly correlate with the rise in cases.
“But let’s not be too complacent…if possible, let’s bring back the mandate to wear face masks especially outside because we are seeing an increase in cases,” he said.
The Philippines logged 17,891 new COVID-19 cases from September 19 to 25, 2022 — 22% higher than those logged from September 12 to 18, the DOH noted.
With this, De Grano stressed that wearing a face mask is “not difficult,” so people should keep doing it even outdoors, as they are not certain if those around them are infected with the coronavirus or not.
He noted the hospital group has been monitoring the rise in active and new daily COVID-19 cases over the past two to three weeks.
“Although it is not getting worse, it seems that our hospital utilization rate is not rising, but we still see that those who are testing positive are increasing,” De Grano added.
In its latest report, the DOH noted that Metro Manila, Rizal, Bulacan, Cavite, and Laguna had shown an upward trend in COVID-19 cases while the rest of the country was at a plateau.
Metro Manila’s ICU and severe and critical admissions are also on an uptrend, the agency added.
Despite the public having the option to ditch the mask outdoors, Vergeire reiterated that certain populations should continue masking up – the elderly, those with comorbidities, students, and passengers in public vehicles among them.
Vergeire reminded local governments to properly implement the policy on optional face mask use, saying it is only through this that COVID-19 cases will remain manageable despite a certain level of easing. She said the policy may also be reversed.
“The DOH itself would recommend to the Office of the President if we see that specific to this policy is the reason why cases are rising,” she said.
In other developments:
* The government’s special vaccination days dubbed “Bakunahang Bayan” will be extended until October 1, the DOH said Tuesday, after Monday’s launch of the nationwide campaign in Luzon was postponed due to super typhoon Karding.
While the “Bakunahang Bayan” was delayed in Luzon, inoculation of the additional jabs continued in parts of the Visayas and Mindanao. Vergeire said that as of Monday, at least 66,576 people have received their first booster shots under the campaign.
* The Philippines reported 1,400 additional cases of highly contagious offshoots of the omicron COVID-19 variant, the DOH said Tuesday.
The country found 1,200 new cases of the omicron BA.5, 33 more cases of the BA.4, 3 cases of BA.2.75, 2 cases of BA.2.12.1, and 162 tagged as “other sublineages,” latest figures from DOH indicated.
While previous coronavirus “variants of concern” like alpha and delta eventually petered out, omicron and its sublineages have dominated throughout 2022.