NATIONAL Task Force (NTF) Against Covid-19 chief and vaccine czar Carlito Galves Jr. assured the public on Sunday, November 28, 2021, that the government, through the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), is closely monitoring all the developments regarding the new and potentially more infectious strain of Sars-CoV-2, the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529).

Galvez said the public has nothing to worry about, as the government is already gearing up against the Omicron variant.

“Nag-usap-usap na kami sa IATF, para 'yung preparation natin sa mga treatment therapies, ICUs, sa ating mga hospitals, personnel, hinahanda na po natin 'yan,” he said in a statement.

"Huwag po kayong mag-alala, huwag po kayong mag-panic. Sundin lang po natin ang minimum health standards at protocols, magsuot po ng face mask, at hopefully, magawa natin 'yung ating ginawa sa Delta variant where we were able to completely manage ‘yung [virus and prevent] possible unnecessary loss of lives at economy," he added.

Vaccination effort

Galvez said the country’s vaccination strategies will continue and will be recalibrated, improved and strengthened amid the threat of Omicron.

He said the focused targets, which include the health workers, elderlies and persons who are immunocompromised, will remain at the top priority of vaccination to control critical disease, hospitalization and excessive deaths due to Covid-19.

"Ang aming panagawan din sa lahat ng ating kababayan, 'yung mga wala pang bakuna, magpabakuna na. During the onslaught of the Delta [variant], nakita natin na karamihan ng casualties at severe cases ay 75-85 percent unvaccinated," he said.

As of November 27, at least 35,557,409 individuals have been fully vaccinated, while 45,286,049 people have received the first dose.

The Philippines launched the three-day National Vaccination Drive on Monday, November 29, to inoculate nine million individuals. This covers primary, booster and pediatric vaccination.

A total of 11,000 vaccination sites and 160,000 volunteers have been activated and mobilized for the nationwide implementation of the program, which will run until December 1.

The second leg of the vaccination event will be held from December 15 to 17.

Amid the threat of the Omicron variant, Galvez said the National Government remains committed to its goal of fully vaccinating at least 77 million individuals in the country by the first quarter of 2022, as well as to start the inoculation of children 11 years old and below.

“By the second quarter of 2022, the government shall have fully vaccinated 90 million individuals, in time for the national elections,” Galvez said.

“The rest of the Filipino population is expected to be fully vaccinated by the third quarter of next year based on the national government’s vaccination synchronization matrix,” he added.

Travel restrictions

On Sunday, November 28, the IATF issued Resolution 151-A, which includes modifications in the Philippines’ border restrictions and control.

The modifications include the inclusion of Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy in the Red list, which initially covered South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique.

Flights coming from the said areas will be prohibited from entering the country until December 15.

Only Filipinos returning to the country via government-initiated or non-government-initiated repatriation and Bayanihan flights may be allowed entry subject to the prevailing entry, testing, and quarantine protocols for Red List countries/jurisdictions/territories.

The IATF also approved the temporary suspension of testing and quarantine protocols for countries/jurisdictions/territories under green list until December 15.

In the resolution issued by the IATF on November 11, fully vaccinated travelers entering the Philippines from areas under the green list no longer need to undergo a facility-based quarantine upon their arrival provided that they yield negative RT-PCR test results taken within 72 hours prior to departure from the country of origin.

They also have the option to undergo a facility-based quarantine until the release of their negative RT-PCR test result taken in the quarantine facility upon arrival in the country or not to undergo quarantine, so long as they get a negative RT-PCR test result within 72 hours prior to departure from the country of origin.

Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals, as well as those with unverified vaccination status and those who failed to comply with the “test-before-travel requirements” need to undergo a facility-based quarantine until the release of their negative RT-PCR test taken on their fifth day in the country.

“Except for countries classified as ‘Red,’ the testing and quarantine protocols for all inbound international travelers in all ports of entry shall comply with the testing and quarantine protocols for ‘Yellow’ list countries,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said.

“The Bureau of Quarantine and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) with the local government units (LGUs) have been directed to identify and locate passengers who arrived within 14 days prior to November 29, 2021, from countries classified as Red, and require them to complete quarantine under a home quarantine set-up for 14 days from date of arrival and undergo RT-PCR if symptoms develop,” he added.

For fully vaccinated passengers departing from countries under yellow list, they need to undergo facility-based quarantine until the release of their negative RT-PCR test result taken on their fifth day in the Philippines.

Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated will have to undergo RT-PCR testing on the seventh day of a facility-based quarantine.

The IATF also temporarily suspended IATF Resolution 150-A (series of 2021), which allows the entry of fully vaccinated nationals of non-visa required countries.

Nograles said LGUs were also enjoined to heighten their alert for detecting, tracking, and isolating Covid-19 cases in their areas, including domestic and foreign travelers.

The Regional Epidemiology and Surveillance Units were also directed to ensure targeted selection of samples for sequencing and address declining submissions of laboratories and regions from domestic and international travelers.

“In addition, the Department of Health is directed to ensure health system capacity is prepared to address increase of Covid-19 cases, if any, while the Sub-Technical Working Group on Data Analytics is directed to begin preparing models to show potential impact of the Omicron variant to prevailing protocols and approvals of the IATF,” said Nograles.

The Omicron variant was first detected in Botswana, and then in South Africa.

In a statement on Sunday, November 28, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it is not clear yet if Omicron is more transmissible as compared to the Delta variant, although preliminary evidence suggests there may be a higher risk of reinfection from the strain. (SunStar Philippines)