The government is considering requiring face shields again as the threat of the more infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19 looms, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said Sunday.
In a press conference, Galvez said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III favored bringing back the mandatory wearing of face shields in response to the new variant, which first emerged in South Africa, but which has spread to Europe and Hong Kong.
He added that Duque supported using face shields again because some people from the World Health Organization (WHO) believed the country obtained good results with the added protection against the Delta variant.
Meanwhile, the government has banned travelers from seven European countries, in addition to the seven African nations it earlier placed under the travel Red List, in a bid to cut off the entry of the dangerous variant of COVID-19.
The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) said Sunday that it was placing Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy under the Red List effective Nov. 28 until Dec. 15.
South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique were earlier placed on the Red List amid the threat of the Omicron coronavirus variant first reported in the region.
The IATF also approved the temporary suspension of its resolution providing for the entry of fully vaccinated nationals of non-visa-required countries.
"With Omicron designated as a Variant of Concern, the IATF likewise approved the recommendations to strengthen local COVID-19 response," the IATF said.
Face shields have been widely unpopular because they are unwieldy and make it difficult to breathe. Critics have also pointed out that no other country in the world mandates the use of face shields.
Under current rules, face shields are optional in areas under Alert Levels 1, 2 and 3.
Galvez also said the authorities will reconsider the plan to lower Metro Manila to Alert Level 1 in December, given the new threat.
No case of the Omicron virus has been recorded in the Philippines so far.
The National Task Force (NTF) against COVID-19 on Sunday said flights from Hong Kong are allowed for now pending a final recommendation from the Technical Working Group.
In a statement, the NTF said it is still waiting for the formal announcement of travel restrictions from the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).
The NTF also apologized for any inconvenience caused by the earlier pronouncement that travelers from Hong Kong are among those banned because of the Omicron variant.
The ban stays on travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique until Dec. 15.
Before the declaration of the ban on Friday, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe were in the “green” list, which won’t require fully inoculated travelers to undergo quarantine as long as they have their vaccination certificates and negative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction test results taken within 72 hours before departure from origin.
Malacañang earlier said the IATF and the DOH are closely monitoring the “heavily mutated” Omicron variant that has spread in South Africa.
On Friday, the WHO declared the newly detected Omicron as a variant of concern, with early evidence suggesting it has a higher re-infection risk after it was first reported to WHO from South Africa on Nov. 24.
“The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant.
The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on Nov. 9, 2021,” WHO reported on Nov. 26.
Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Gen. Dionardo Carlos on Sunday said contingency measures are now being prepared.
“We’ve been there, done that. The implementation of the strictest quarantine protocol is not new to us and the PNP is always ready to go back to our deployment template,” Carlos said in a statement.
He acknowledged, however, that the coming elections may complicate matters.
“There will be mobilization of supporters, but we need to strike a balance between allowing them to freely express their inherent political right and the need to suppress the spread of the virus. Once this happens, we will seek the guidance of the Commission on Electionson the possible adjustment in the campaign guidelines,” Carlos said.
He said the PNP has been willing to coordinate with other agencies in providing security to the different entry points of the country and this comes after the government tightened our borders to prevent the entry of the new Covid-19 variant.
Meanwhile, the deputy director of the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) said the agency is monitoring passengers from South Africa and other nations that detected the Omicron variant.
In an interview on radio dzBB, Salvador said the BOQ and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) were directed to locate travelers who might have come from affected countries.
A leading epidemiologist in the United States, Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, said the new variant could be 500 percent more infectious than the Delta variant.
A former adviser to the government effort against COVID-19 on Sunday suggested the government extend to 14 days the quarantine period for travelers coming into the Philippines, and the banning of flights from more countries due to the threat of the Omicron variant.
In an interview on ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo, Dr. Tony Leachon said the country should consider bringing back a 14-day quarantine period for travelers as a measure against the spread of the Omicron variant in the country.
“We should bring back the stricter quarantine because these variants increase the risk of transmission,” Leachon said.
Currently, travelers from "yellow list" territories who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 undergo a three-day facility-based quarantine upon arrival in the Philippines, if they have a negative RT-PCR test result taken within 72 hours before departure.
These travelers are tested for COVID-19 on the third day, with the date of arrival considered the first day. They are discharged from facility quarantine after receiving a negative RT-PCR test.
Those without a negative RT-PCR test result need to stay in a facility-based quarantine until release of a negative test result, take a swab test on the fifth day upon arrival, and be on home quarantine for 10 days upon arrival.
Fully vaccinated Filipinos arriving from "green list" areas are not required to undergo a facility-based quarantine and on-arrival swab testing, if they present a negative RT-PCR test result taken within 72 hours before departure.
Those without a negative RT-PCR test result need to undergo on-arrival swab testing, facility-based quarantine until the release of a negative result, and self-monitoring for 14 days upon arrival.
Fully vaccinated foreigners coming from "green list" countries, meanwhile, are required to present a negative RT-PCR test result taken within 72 hours before departure and undergo self-monitoring for 14 days upon arrival.
They are not required to stay in facility-based quarantine and on-arrival swab testing.
Leachon said the Philippines should prioritize banning travelers from Hong Kong after the nearby territory detected a case of the Omicron variant. Hong Kong is currently in the government's "green list".
“I would probably ban travelers from Hong Kong first because it's very near…. We have a lot of Filipinos who are coming home from there,” Leachon said.
Leachon also said the Philippines should take Israel, which banned all foreigners from entering its country, as its "role model" on border control amid the spread of the new variant.
Leachon added that the country should remain under Alert Level 2 until the end of the year and only ease to Alert Level 1 in January.
The government should also speed up COVID-19 vaccination to prepare the population for a possible surge that may be prompted by the new variant, he added.
The Philippines has fully vaccinated nearly 35 million people, accounting for around 45 percent of its 77.1-million target for the country to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19. There are 44.5 million others who have received their first dose.
Also on Sunday, Senator Imee Marcos urged health authorities in government and the private sector to promptly take up the World Health Organization’s offer to share new blood-testing technology meant for free manufacture and easy use in rural areas.
Marcos said increasing the country’s testing capacity “now more than ever” by acquiring the new technology will buttress the national jab program that is still troubled by public hesitancy, insufficient cold storage and transport to island and mountain provinces, and a looming global shortage of syringe needles.
She said mass vaccination alone is not enough for pandemic control if new variants like Delta and Omicron keep emerging.
"We need to get ahead of their spread through early detection and isolation, if we don’t want more blanket lockdowns and a further drag on our economy,” she said.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Bernadette Herrera, meanwhile, urged the government to tighten its guidelines against the new variant of COVID-19.
“This new coronavirus variant is a reminder for all of us that this pandemic is far from over, and we hope the authorities will double their efforts to prevent its entry into the Philippines,” she said.
Although the Philippines has already imposed travel restrictions on travelers from South Africa and nearby countries, Herrera said the government must be ready to take extra measures to prevent Omicron being imported.
“Authorities must put additional control measures in place, including enhanced contact tracing, rapid testing and isolation, in all ports of entry nationwide,” Herrera said.
A much faster system should be in place to respond to the new variants and a possible rise in COVID-19 cases in the future while the government’s vaccination program is still being rolled out, she added.
Valenzuela City Rep. Eric Martinez said the government must prepare for the worst case scenario as the world faces yet another COVID-19 variant.