The Department of Health (DOH) on Tuesday discouraged people marking the coming Holy Week from kissing altars amid an ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“This virus can be transmitted through droplet infection that can be passed on… if we kiss an altar that has been repeatedly kissed by others,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said during a press briefing.
Vergeire said the DOH urged churches to temporarily discontinue the practice for the time being.
“There are other ways we can show our devotion to the saints,” Vergeire said.
“We hope this practice can be avoided to prevent an increase in cases,” she added.
At the same time, the DOH discouraged penitents from having themselves crucified as these could cause them harm.
“We understand that we have our beliefs, our faith. And we believe we each have a particular way of worshipping God,” Vergeire said.
Vergeire warned that crucifixions can cause blood loss, tetanus, and other kinds of infections.
“We are advising our countrymen to avoid this. Like I said we can worship God in other ways,” she said.
Meanwhile, a health expert said the Omicron XE is “more concerning” than other sub-variants because of its transmissibility but it might not be more severe than they are.
During the Department of Health’s (DOH) media forum, infectious disease expert Dr. Edsel Salvana explained the Omicron XE is a recombinant of two sub-lineages of the Omicron variant, BA.1 and BA.2. The XD and XF are recombinants of the Delta and Omicron variants.
“What is more concerning now is the XE because it looks like it has a 10 percent growth advantage and a case has already been reported in Thailand. These recombinants, if they have a survival advantage, can spread in different areas,” Salvana said.
“There’s always a possibility it can come in, but we don’t expect it to be more severe and we don’t expect it to dodge vaccines any worse than BA.1 or BA.2,” he said.
On Monday, the DOH said it is in constant coordination with the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding “Omicron XE” as it also continuously monitors case trends with the assistance of the Philippine Genome Center.
The WHO said the XE recombinant belongs to the Omicron variant until “significant differences in transmission and disease characteristics, including severity, may be reported.”
“We call them recombinants because when there are two lineages of a virus circulating in a community, sometimes they infect one person at the same time. When that happens, the different parts of the virus can combine. This is what happened to XE, XD, and XF,” Salvana said.
Vergeire assured the public there is “no need to worry” about the threat of the Omicron XE, which has already been detected in countries such as the United Kingdom and Thailand, as safety nets remain in place in the country’s borders.
Vergeire said the country cannot keep on opening and closing its borders from foreign tourists if the goal is to move forward to the new normal.
“We need to change our mindset and live with this virus,” she said, underscoring the need to continue observing the minimum public health standards and getting vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.
On Friday, April 1, the Philippines started accepting fully-vaccinated foreign tourists, including those from visa countries.
The Philippines has been open to business and leisure travelers from 157 visa-free countries since Feb. 10.
Only fully vaccinated foreign tourists are allowed to enter the country. They are required to present a negative COVID-19 RT-PCR test result taken 48 hours prior to their trip or a negative laboratory-based antigen result taken 24 hours before departure.
Salvana said current vaccine and booster doses administered in the country are effective against the Omicron XE.
Dr. Rontgene Solante said current vaccines are working against the BA.1 and BA.2 Omicron sub-variants.
Based on DOH data, 66.2 million Filipinos are already fully vaccinated as of April 4, while 71.4 have received their first dose.
There are also at least 12.2 million who have taken their booster shots.
The government plans to fully vaccinate 90 million Filipinos by the time President Rodrigo Duterte leaves office on June 30.
In other developments:
•The National Task Force Against COVID-19 and the DOH said most of the 27 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines set to expire were either donated or were bought by local governments and the private sector.
“We made sure from the very start to ensure that there will be enough vaccines available on hand. The national government, local government units, and the private sector all placed orders for vaccines,” the task force said.
“No one could guarantee for certain that manufacturers could deliver at the scale and schedule our people required. Hence, decisions were made to secure as many doses as could be obtained from wherever they could be sourced.”
The NTF and the DOH also said only 2 percent of the country’s COVID-19 vaccines have been wasted, and these may be due to supply chain inefficiencies or errors in dose administration.
• The DOH said the Philippines is in talks regarding its plan to donate COVID-19 vaccines to Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. “We’re finalizing the inventory, but definitely the donation will push through,” she said. The Philippines has distributed 172 million out of 244 million vaccine doses it has procured and received.
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