Celebrate Christmas but be prepared for Omicron, says OCTA fellow

Published December 7, 2021, 8:32 AM

by Ellalyn De Vera-Ruiz


Despite the threat of the Omicron variant of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the public should still celebrate Christmas but with proper caution, OCTA research fellow Fr. Nicanor Austriaco said during President Duterte’s Talk to the People on Monday evening, Dec. 6.

Austriaco said the new COVID-19 variant of concern, called Omicron, could be more transmissible but less deadly than the Delta variant, based on preliminary data.

“Is the Omicron variant more transmissible? It is likely po that it is more transmissible. Is the Omicron variant more immune evasive? Probably po. The initial data seems to look like that. Is the Omicron variant more deadly? And this is the good news po, it’s probably less deadly than Delta,” said the molecular biologist and visiting professor of the University of Santo Tomas.

“The data from South Africa is very hopeful, especially since they have already been dealing with the surge for at least a week or two and the hospitalizations do not seem to be dramatically increasing po,” he added.

While the initial data on the Omicron variant is optimistic, Austriaco still advised the public and the government to make preparations for its arrival.

“First, there is no need to panic. Let us celebrate Pasko [Christmas]. This is the best time in 20 months for the entire country [with an average of about 500 cases per day],” Austriaco said.

“It is the time to be careful. We have to prepare. But we also have to celebrate especially since this is Christmas. We must prepare the hospital infrastructure and increase healthcare workers and staffing capacity po Because in the Alpha and Delta surges it was clear that we had nursing shortages, especially in the NCR [National Capital Region],” he added.

Austriaco said the Philippines has already attained a “substantial” population immunity from COVID infections but urged the government to continue vaccinating and administering booster shots to “boost and maintain population immunity.”

“This is really important po because the experience of Israel and other countries that vaccinated early showed that it is important to boost at the appropriate time to maintain population immunity,” he said.

“We must increase the population immunity around our international gateways. Omicron will enter through an airport most likely. And so what we have to do is we have to build a wall of vaccinated Filipinos around these airports. Because once Omicron arrives, it will try to spread into the Filipino population. And if the Filipinos around the airports po–and this was the rationale strategy for the NCR Plus 8–are heavily vaccinated, then it doesn’t matter if there is an OFW [overseas Filipino worker] who returns home. Because even if this person is able to enter the community, the virus will struggle,” he also said.

Austriaco also encouraged unvaccinated Filipinos to get vaccinated.

“Omicron, when it arrives in the Philippines, will find every unvaccinated Filipino. And you will get sick, and even though it is mild, it is still, it is still COVID-19. And we do not want to put ourselves and our beloved family members, especially our lolos and lolas into–we do not want to risk them, to risk their lives and their well-being and their livelihood, especially at this time,” he said.

The OCTA fellow also underscored the effectiveness of antiviral drugs against all variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“These drugs work on the virus. They kill the virus once the virus enters the human cells,” Austriaco said, referring to the antiviral drugs paxlovid and molnupiravir.

“If a Filipino gets COVID and is at high risk, what we would have to do if we have these drugs is we have to give this Filipino, our kababayan, 10 pills. Two every day for five days po. That is all that is needed, and we will be able to prevent him from entering the hospital. He will be sick at home but it will be mild. He will not be hospitalized,” he said.

Austriaco reiterated that the country’s “way out” of the COVID-19 pandemic is through vaccinations and the use of antiviral drugs.

“So the way out of this pandemic is through vaccinations which we are doing now po. And we must continue to do that to maintain our immunity, especially with the Omicron threat. And we now have to also focus our efforts on procuring antiviral drugs. This combination po will transform pandemic COVID-19 into endemic COVID-19, where we will be able to reopen completely our societies, and where COVID-19 will become a regular flu,” he added.