POSTSCRIPT / January 4, 2022 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Easing COVID alert level a risky gamble

REELING from the sudden rise in COVID-19 cases nationwide after the holidays, many people are now asking if the easing of the pandemic alert from Level 3 to 2 on Jan. 1 (supposedly until Jan. 15) was a science-based decision or a political calculated risk that misfired.

The resulting upsurge of cases jolted a nation hoping to enter the New Year less worried about the coronavirus and its variants that have infected more than 2,850,000 Filipinos and killed at least 51,580 since the first Wuhan strain leaped to Manila in January 2020.

With vaccinations ramped up in the last quarter of 2021, the number of new cases had dropped to a daily average of less than 1,000. That encouraged the government to lower the alert from Level 3 to 2 to give an air of normalcy during the holidays and to stimulate the economy.

But the day after COVID-19 protocols were relaxed, mainly by allowing people to move around and for businesses to accommodate more customers, the daily count of infections rose to 3,617 with deaths numbering 133.

More mobility was good for the people’s mood and the economy, but health safeguards seemed to have been neglected. Photos and videos show throngs flocking to malls, markets and other public places without minding proper distancing and the wearing of masks.

If it’s any consolation, other countries and major capitals also reported infection surges, mostly blamed on the Omicron variant. Some countries have started to have problems also with vaccine fatigue, forcing some of them to mandate inoculations.

As of yesterday, the United States continued to top the COVID-19 global scoreboard, with 55,864,519 cases and 847,162 deaths. The Philippines is ranked No. 21 on a list of 224 countries and territories. It is second to Indonesia (No. 14) among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Malaysia comes next to it at No. 22.

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IN Manila, the OCTA Research group reported over the weekend that the COVID-19 reproduction number in the National Capital Region had climbed to 4.05. As for the positivity rate in the NCR, its peak was 30 percent on April 2, 2021.

Reproduction number refers to how many people are infected or contaminated by one case or carrier. A reproduction number below 1 indicates that the transmission is slowing down.

On the other hand, the positivity rate refers to the percentage of people found positive for COVID-19 among the total number of individuals tested. The country’s 28-percent positivity rate reported over the weekend, quite high, is cause for concern.

The World Health Organization advised governments in May 2020 that before reopening their areas, their positivity rate should be at 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days. A 5-percent rate means that 5 out of every 100 persons tested prove to be positive of COVID-19.

With more infected people walking around, some of whom may not even be aware that they are carriers, the higher is the possibility of their spreading the virus. The unchecked contamination complicates tracing and treatment.

The possibility of thus spreading the disease is higher with the latest Omicron variant, which is said to be more transmissible, although it is reportedly less likely to result in severe infection or prolonged hospitalization.

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ONE question being raised in media and other forums is whether or not the authorities loosened up restrictions too quickly since the holiday cheer was already upon us, and people were buoyed by the increased money supply in circulation.

Dr. Maricar Limpin, head of the Philippine College of Physicians, told Super Radyo dzBB that the downgrading of the alert level was too sudden. She said that increased mobility may have contributed to the spike in infections.

She cited the case of children who were let loose even if they have not been vaccinated and are therefore more vulnerable to infection. Many of them do not bother with health standards and social distancing, she noted.

Another point being raised in other forums is whether politics influenced the decision to take the calculated risk of easing people’s mobility that early and ramping up business operations, with one eye on the national elections in May.

Whether it was a miscalculation or not, with the unseen virus/variants refusing to cooperate, Level 2 has been raised back to the stricter Level 3 until Jan. 15 – for how long after and in what areas, only the officials holding the levers know.

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THE evolving picture must take into account also the different viewpoints of scientists and experts.

OCTA Research fellow Guido David, for one, pointed out that as the reproduction number in the NCR had climbed to 4.05, the seven-day average in new cases had increased from 90 to 962 in the past week, good for a 969 percent increase.

Seeing the DoH daily report showing 3,617 cases out of 29,239 tests, David said he was expecting about the same range – possibly 3,500 to 4,000 in the country and 2,500 to 3,000 in the NCR. He said the numbers could settle down to around 2,000 cases per day.

He said on Twitter: “NCR positivity rate spikes even higher to 28 percent. I now expect the same range of new cases as yesterday. Possibly 3,500 to 4,000 in PH and 2500 to 3000 in NCR. Please wear your masks.”

David also noted that the number of occupied hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in Metro Manila increased by 41 percent in one week from 1,381 on Dec. 24 to 1,942 on Dec. 31. Hospital bed occupancy in the NCR is now at 23 percent while ICU occupancy is at 25 percent, still below the 70-percent critical threshold, he said.

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