WHO supports easing curbs in NCR but urges gov’t to be ‘very careful’
MANILA, Philippines — The World Health Organization (WHO) Thursday expressed support for the easing of restrictions in Metro Manila but urged the government to be "very careful" and to continue its pandemic containment strategies to prevent another surge in infections.
The government has approved the proposal to downgrade Metro Manila's status from Alert Level 4 to Alert Level 3 starting October 16 as the capital region recorded a downward trend in COVID-19 cases and a high vaccination rate.
While the easing of restrictions will restore jobs and allow several businesses to reopen at higher venue capacities, some health experts have reservations about it, noting that many hospitals are still operating near full capacity.
"With the high vaccine coverage in Metro Manila, we believe that we need to adjust and calibrate the restrictions, and that’s why WHO took up the position that we support the granular lockdowns; we support the easing of restrictions because…lockdowns have terrible economic consequences and affect the people negatively," WHO Country Representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said at a press briefing.
"So we are supportive of this but we need to be very careful. That’s why I said, we need to calibrate our response; we need to continue to urge the LGUs to ensure that access to testing is maintained," he added.
Abeyasinghe cited the need to urge the population to "do everything they can to quarantine or isolate themselves if they’re having symptoms" and to avoid going out so they won't place other people at risk.
"So while the calibrations are important, we have to very careful in monitoring this and we need to be flexible enough to tighten restrictions in very granular areas if we see localized transmission happening within cities or within purok or barangay occasionally," he added.
As of October 13, about 7.72 million residents of Metro Manila or 78.95% of its eligible population have been fully vaccinated. About 65% of the capital region's intensive care unit beds have been occupied, a utilization rate that falls under moderate risk.
Abeyasinghe reminded the public to continue observing safety protocols like physical distancing, proper hygiene and mask wearing.
"Even though they are fully vaccinated…these are critically important to maintain the gains and further strengthen the transmission reduction," the WHO country representative said.
"We now have less than 2,000 cases on the average, on (a) daily basis, here in NCR (National Capital Region). We’re going to see that going down further and so we need to be very careful in calibrating and adjusting the restrictions," he added.
Under Alert Level 3, a number of establishments and activities can operate or be undertaken at a maximum of 30 percent indoor venue capacity for fully vaccinated persons and 50 percent outdoor venue capacity.
The capacity limits will cover venues for meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions; permitted venues for social events such as parties, wedding receptions, engagement parties, wedding anniversaries, debut and birthday parties, family reunions, and bridal or baby showers; visitor or tourist attractions such as libraries, archives, museums, galleries, exhibits, parks, plazas, public gardens, scenic viewpoints or overlooks, and the like; amusement parks or theme parks; recreational venues such as internet cafes, billiard halls, amusement arcades, bowling alleys, skating rinks, archery halls, swimming pools, and similar venues; cinemas and movie houses; limited face-to-face classes for higher education and for technical-vocational education and training; in-person religious gatherings, gatherings for necrological services, wakes, inurnment, and funerals for those who died of causes other than COVID-19.
They will also apply on licensure or entrance or qualifying examinations administered by government agencies and specialty examinations authorized by the IATF; dine-in services in food preparation establishments; personal care establishments such as barbershops, hair spas, hair salons, and nail spas, and those offering aesthetic or cosmetic services or procedures, make-up services, salons, spas, reflexology, and other similar procedures including home service options; fitness studios, gyms, and venues for non-contact exercise and sports provided that clients and workers wear face masks at all times and that no group activities are conducted; and film, music and television production.
WHO: Premature to talk about 'bubble'
At the same press briefing, Abeyasinghe said it is premature to talk about "vaccine bubbles" because the inoculation rate for the entire Philippines is still low.
As of October 13, about 23.77 million persons or 30.81% of the Philippines have received their second dose of pandemic jabs.
"The understanding is that we don’t have enough vaccine coverage in the country to create bubbles. The discrepancy in coverage is very significant and there is no way that we can maintain the intactness of a bubble," Abeyasinghe said.
"So, between those circumstances, I think it’s premature to talk about bubbles because vaccine coverage in the country is only 30% at this point in time," he added.
Abeyasinghe said the proposal to implement a vaccine bubble, which would relax the restrictions on fully inoculated persons, may be considered if areas surrounding Metro Manila like Central Luzon and CALABARZON achieve high vaccination rates.
"So, our contention is that if we can achieve…higher coverage in (regions) III and IV-A, then we may be able to look at it because then the number of people coming into the bubble will be significantly less who are unvaccinated," the WHO country representative said.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the vaccination should be fast-tracked to make the implementation of the "NCR Plus" bubble possible. NCR Plus consists of Metro Manila and the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal.
Roque added that it is just right for Filipinos to be afraid of COVID-19 but maintained that the reopening of the economy is possible if health protocols are followed.
"They (Filipinos) are afraid of the virus. You should be afraid because if you do not wear a face mask, you do not wash your hands, you do not observe physical distance or do not get vaccinated, you may get sick or you may die," the Palace spokesman said.
"But if you wear a face mask, wash your hands frequently, observe physical distance and get vaccinated, we can return to work," he added.
A Social Weather Stations poll conducted from September 12 to 16 suggested that 91% of Filipinos are worried that anyone in their family might get infected with COVID-19.
Roque also assured the public that safety measures would be implemented once cinemas reopen in Metro Manila. He noted that only vaccinated persons can watch movies and that only up to 30 percent of the capacity of theaters can be filled up.
"No one will sit beside another…There are guidelines issued by the DOH (Department of Health) about the need for ventilation and the use of air purifier systems," Roque said.
"Let us also consider the livelihood of those whose works are related to theaters. It's not just the theaters but also the artists, cameramen, and extras who rely on it for their livelihood. We will not sacrifice health because we have reached the point that almost 80 percent of people here in Metro Manila have been vaccinated," he added.
Credit belongs to : www.philstar.com