Govt readies shift to endemic phase


The Department of Health (DoH) is laying the groundwork for shifting the country’s coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) response plan from the pandemic to the endemic phase.

The DoH is preparing for the transition even as the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned it may be too early to consider Covid-19 as an endemic since a new variant could still emerge in areas with low vaccine coverage.

The Health department, however, appears confident in making the shift following the steady decline in Covid-19 cases, with the daily average further dipping to 6,103 cases during the week of February 4 to 10.

All regions, with the exception of the Soccsksargen (South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos), are now at low to moderate risk, with the national hospital capacity remaining a low risk.

In a media briefing on Friday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the transition to an endemic state for Covid-19 does not mean that the government would stop its interventions or even remove minimum health protocols such as masking, physical distancing and hand sanitation.

“Kinakailangan pa rin po nating sumunod sa mga health protocols upang manatili po tayong ligtas at maiwasan natin ang pagkakaroon ng (We need to follow the health protocols so that we continue to be safe and prevent) future outbreaks,” Vergeire said.

Diseases such as tuberculosis, dengue and measles are examples of endemic diseases that continue to require health protocols to prevent outbreaks from recurring, she said.

It would be best for the country to be “cautiously optimistic” in moving toward a new normal, which is equivalent to Alert Level 1, with all of the existing protocols remaining in place during and after the transition, Vergeire said.

She said a new normal should have a manageable environment for the virus where restrictions will be limited to certain high risk settings.

Vergeire also believes that the last public health restriction that will be removed in the new normal is the mask mandate since it not only protects people from Covid-19 but also from other respiratory diseases,

DoH Technical Advisory Group (TAG) member Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvana stressed the importance of maintaining the existing precautions since the country has not vaccinated much of its population.

“We need to be a little bit more cautious so we don’t backslide,” Salvana said.

Fellow DoH TAG member Dr. Anna Lisa Ong-Lim said that even if the country continues to move into the new normal, people should continue to be aware that a surge remains likely at local levels.

“If there is anything that Covid has taught us, it is that it is really quite picky and we had several instances na akala natin tuloy na ang pagbaba and then nagugulat na lang tayo na may bagong variant, bagong pagdami ng kaso (we thought there will be a decline only to be surprised that there is a new variant has spurred new case increases)” Ong-Lim said.

WHO Acting Philippine Representative Dr. Rajendra Yadav said that while the continued drop in the number of new cases is “encouraging,” the country should be careful in moving from the “acute phase” of the pandemic.

Yadav said that with the unpredictable nature of Covid, it would be dangerous to assume that the highly infectious Omicron variant will be the end or that the pandemic has entered the endgame.

“New variants could emerge and these new variants could evade our countermeasures, may even become fully resistant to the current vaccines which will necessitate vaccine adaptations,” Yadav said during a briefing Friday.

He warned that another variant may emerge in countries with low vaccination coverage, but he remained hopeful that the Covid health emergency could end this year if the Philippines and the world work together to prevent infections.

On Friday, the DoH reported 3,788 new Covid infections.

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