An infectious disease expert on Wednesday cautioned the public against attending parties and gatherings over the holidays as information about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 remains scarce.
The warning from Dr. Rontgene Solante, head of the Adult Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine unit of the San Lazaro Hospital, came as private hospitals braced for a possible spike in cases due to the new variant.
"We need more information about the Omicron variant of concern…When we do activities that increase our risk of getting the infection… we have to be careful. We have to follow health protocols,” Solante said in an interview on ANC’s Headstart.
“You may say I’m a killjoy, but please don’t engage in unwanted gatherings,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English.
First detected in South Africa, the Omicron variant was found to have 32 mutations from the original virus, and has since been detected in several countries across Africa, Europe in Australia and in Hong Kong.
Preliminary studies said the mutations were concerning because they might mean the variant could evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible.
Although there are no reports of this new variant in the Philippines as yet, Solante said it was better to be cautious than face another surge of infections after the holidays, which would be a burden on already strained health workers.
“We might be surprised in January by a surge. That’s something that we don’t like to happen, especially us health care workers. We’re really tired and if we have a surge again, I don’t know what will happen to us,” he said.
Private hospitals, meanwhile, were bracing for a possible spike in infections.
Dr. Jose Rene De Grano, president of Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines Inc, said there are now ample supplies of oxygen and vacant beds amid a drop in COVID-19 cases in the country.
“Private hospitals are prepared in case there will be a surge or new cases of COVID,” De Grano told ABS-CBN’s TeleRadyo.
South Africa reported the Omicron variant to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24.
While much is still unknown about the new variant, the agency believes its high number of mutations may make it more transmissible or resistant to vaccines.
A number of countries, including the Philippines, have closed their borders to prevent the spread of the variant.
As of Nov. 29, some 8,153 out of 28,482 hospital beds are occupied, data from the Department of Health showed.
Some 1,116 out of 1,291 health facilities are considered at the "safe" level, which means less than 60 percent of their capacity is occupied. Only 30 facilities were tagged as "critical,” or more than 85 percent occupied.
De Grano said there were still more than 7,000 COVID-19 patients being treated in private hospitals despite the decline in cases.
As the Omicron variant has spread to some parts of the world, he said, most of the country, including Metro Manila, should remain under COVID-19 Alert Level 2 until the year’s end.
Metro Manila and many other provinces are under looser quarantine restrictions until Dec. 15.
“I think we should not downgrade to Alert Level 1 right now,” he said.
The country on Tuesday reported 425 new COVID-19 cases, the lowest daily tally so far this year.
The threat of the new variant is reason enough for more people to get vaccinated, the presidential adviser for entrepreneurship, Joey Concepcion, said.
“With variants continuing to emerge, I believe it is time we aim for close to 100 percent vaccination in the country,” Concepcion said. “Omicron has only made vaccine mandates urgent and justifiable. The country’s economy is at stake.”
Concepcion said he supported the government’s decision to make COVID tests mandatory for on-site workers, and said he also supports mandatory vaccinations. He said in the long run, vaccines would make better sense for on-site workers.
“If a worker refuses to take the vaccine, he would spend upwards of P60,000 a year getting tested every other week,” he said.
Meanwhile, an opposition leader at the House of Representatives called for free mass testing of the population for COVID-19.
Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said that with new variants like Omicron "wreaking havoc worldwide, free mass testing would still be the key in fighting and containing this modern health scourge."
"Of course, free mass testing should also go hand in hand with fast and serious contact tracing to effectively contain this new variant. These should all be funded by the government, not just the vaccinations," Zarate said.
The Philippines logged 500 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases to 2,833,038.
There were 167 new fatalities reported, bringing the COVID-19 death toll to 48,712.
The Department of Health also reported 951 new recoveries, bringing the total recoveries to 2,768,999.
There were 15,327 active cases, of which 756 were asymptomatic; 7,183 were mild; 3,832 were moderate; 2,489 were severe; and 1,067 were critical.
The COVID-19 positivity rate was at 2.1 percent based on 30,841 tests conducted on Nov. 29. This is well within the World Health Organization’s target of below 5 percent.
Nationwide, 27 percent of ICU beds, 26 percent of isolation beds, 15 percent of ward beds, and 15 percent of ventilators, were in use.
In Metro Manila, 28 percent of ICU beds, 22 percent of isolation beds, 20 percent of ward beds, and 16 percent of ventilators, were in use.
Despite the dire warnings about the Omicron variant, the independent OCTA Research Group said the country could see daily cases fall to under 500 by Christmas.
Guido David of the OCTA Research Group, said most parts of the country could shift to Alert Level 1, the loosest of the current quarantine restrictions, if there was no threat of the new variant.