Philippines eyes lifting of coronavirus lockdown

 Philippines eyes lifting of coronavirus lockdown

DINERS at a restaurant in Eastwood Mall in Libis, Quezon City enjoy their food as barriers were removed on the first day of Alert level 1 in Metro Manila. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

PHILIPPINE authorities are looking at lifting a coronavirus lockdown in Manila, the capital and nearby cities as infections continue to fall, the country’s health chief said on Thursday.

An inter-agency task force would also do away with restrictions that are no longer needed, Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III told a televised news briefing.

“Even though establishments in areas under Alert Level 1 are now allowed 100% capacity, infections are still declining,” he said, noting that the country has been posting fewer than 1,000 cases daily. “Hopefully this can be further decreased to 500 or even fewer.”

Metro Manila and most areas were placed under Alert Level 1 — the most relaxed lockdown in a five-tier system — after experiencing a surge in infections spurred by the highly mutated Omicron variant at the start of the year.

Metro Manila and 38 other areas that were placed Under Alert Level 1 this month are doing so far, so good, Mr. Duque said. The task force might place other parts of the country under Alert Level 1 once there is minimal risk from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and less than 50% of the healthcare system is used, he added.

About 70% of people in an area under the first alert level must also have been fully vaccinated, while the vaccination requirement for seniors is 80%.

The Philippines had fully vaccinated 63.99 million people as of March 9, while 62.68 million have received their first dose, data from the Department of Health (DoH) showed. Almost 10.68 million booster shots have been injected.

Meanwhile, the Philippines might donate AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines that are about to expire to countries with low vaccination coverage such as Myanmar, Cambodia and some African countries, Mr. Duque said.

These won’t get donated if the local Food and Drug Administration approves a DoH request to extend the shelf life of the vaccines, he said.

The Philippines has received 38.85 million AstraZeneca vaccines, 16.5 million of which were bought by the government, while 22.3 million were donated by various countries, according to Statista.

The AstraZeneca shot, which can be stored at refrigerated temperatures of 2C to 8C, lasts six months, the shortest among COVAX’s top vaccine suppliers, according to Reuters.

At least 19 African nations had expired AstraZeneca vaccines compared with a handful of countries with expired doses from other drugmakers, it said.

“The problem with a short shelf life largely concerns AstraZeneca, according to COVAX data and officials,” Reuters said.

The government took delivery on Monday of more than 5 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer, Inc., according to the presidential palace.

The United States donated 4 million doses under a global initiative for equal access while the government bought the remaining 1.17 million doses.

The government started a fourth round of a special three-day vaccination drive on March 10 that aims to vaccinate 1.8 million people, particularly the elderly.

The OCTA Research Group from the University of the Philippines earlier said infections might increase again if Filipinos ignore health protocols and don’t get booster shots.

The country has been reporting fewer than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases for the past few days but things can still change, OCTA fellow Fredegusto P. David told a televised news briefing on Sunday.

He said the Philippines might experience a surge by April or May, noting that the country usually experiences a surge after every three months.

Mr. David said the surge could be triggered by new coronavirus variants, failure to comply with health rules, large gatherings during the campaign period and waning immunity.

He said daily cases could fall to 500 by the end of March.

The Philippines has experienced four waves of COVID-19 since 2020. It reported the highest single-day tally on Jan. 15 at 30,004. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza