In late November, experts in South Africa identified a new variant of the COVID-19 virus and were concerned. They were alarmed by the presence of several mutations, particularly in the spike proteins, which are believed to make the variant more transmissible and even bypass the protections provided by people’s immune systems.
Shortly after, the World Health Organization dubbed the new variant of concern, “Omicron,” and warned that it poses a high risk of infection surges across the globe, especially since huge swaths of world’s population remain unvaccinated. In response, countries including the Philippines quickly reinstated travel restrictions, mask mandates, and other safety protocols. More will probably follow suit as Omicron cases are identified across the world.
To be clear, it’s still too early to see how the new variant will actually impact the trajectory of the pandemic. Very little is known about Omicron. And it will reportedly take several weeks at least before researchers come up with definitive answers on how contagious the variant is; whether it is able to infect even vaccinated people; whether current vaccines will work against it; and whether those infected with the Omicron variant have milder or more severe symptoms compared to others.
But amidst all the uncertainty and worry, it appears that the proper course of action is already known to us. During a recent briefing in the US with the COVID-19 response team of the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci underscored that existing measures should work against Omicron. These include wearing masks; exercising social distancing; favoring outdoor and limited-in-number over indoor and crowded gatherings; getting tested as regularly as possible; and of course, getting vaccinated (and boosters when available).
In some of these measures we as a country could definitely do better. In others however, such as with vaccinations, it seems things are looking up. For instance, the Department of Health reported that some 7.6 million Filipinos were vaccinated during the three National Vaccination Days held recently. Admittedly, this number fell below the original target of vaccinating nine million (or three million people a day). But it’s important to note that pre-COVID, the most vaccinations the country has been able to achieve in a year was around five million.
Either way, it’s critical that we get more arms jabbed in the quickest time possible, especially now that our supply of vaccines appears to be steadying. Thankfully, local government units (LGUs) requested for a two-day extension of the vaccination drive to catch up, and the IATF is reportedly considering a second round in the middle of December to meet its target of inoculating 54 million people by the end of the year.
But getting our population fully vaccinated will still take time. And even with a steady supply, vaccine hesitancy remains a roadblock unless addressed effectively. This is why it is critical that people continue practicing the social distancing and the minimum public health safety protocols that have been commonplace throughout this pandemic. And foremost among these is wearing the proper face masks.
Alongside vaccinations, frequent hand-washing, and social distancing, mask-wearing has been shown to be an effective means of curbing the spread of the virus. An often-cited study to prove mask-wearing’s effectivity was published in May 2020 by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US-CDC). Two hairstylists in a Missouri, US, salon tested positive for COVID-19 but did not pass on the virus to the 139 clients they serviced before falling ill because of their vigilant mask-wearing. Several other studies from the US, China, and Thailand, showed that mask-wearing reduced risk by at least 70 percent. An investigation of infected passengers of a 10-hour flight even suggested that in-flight transmission was prevented because of masks.
Buoyed by such information, our office has been conducting in the past few months a “Bakuna at Maskara” (Vaccines and Masks) drive with the dual objective of encouraging people to get themselves vaccinated and distributing up to 800,000 reusable cloth masks nationwide. So far, we’ve handed out nearly 260,000 throughout Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, and hope to distribute the rest before summer begins next year.
COVID-19 cases are declining in the Philippines, as the hope is rising that we all have a better Christmas than last year. However, the emergence of the Omicron variant is only reminding us that the pandemic is not yet over. And we shouldn’t let our guard down. When our response to the pandemic is steady and consistent, there will also be greater assurance that we will finally emerge from this pandemic. As Dr. Fauci put it succinctly: “These things that we have been doing, we need to keep doing them.” Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 17 years. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.
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