Covid-19: Philippines launches campaign to vaccinate 9 million people in three days

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MANILA - The Philippines on Monday (Nov 29) kicked off a massive three-day vaccination drive as it tries to head off a surge that the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus could cause.

"This is our single biggest push to fast-track vaccination and reach our target of 70 per cent population protection nationwide," said President Rodrigo Duterte.

"We will overcome this pandemic, and come out stronger and better as a nation," he said during a visit to a vaccination site at a mall east of the capital Manila to officially start the campaign.

The countrywide sweep till Wednesday is targeting to vaccinate some nine million Filipinos, especially in rural and far-flung areas where vaccine access has been a problem and the level of vaccine hesitancy remains high.

The government is mobilising over 100,000 volunteers and has set up some 8,000 vaccination centres across the country.

Mr Duterte has declared the three-day stretch as "special working days", excusing people from work if they are going to get a jab.

Images on social media showed huge crowds and long queues at malls, hospitals, churches and gyms being used as vaccination sites.

As at 5pm on Monday, the government reported that over 540,000 had been vaccinated.

The government is hoping that by Wednesday, three out of every five Filipinos aged 12 and above would have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

The government had hoped to vaccinate 77 million out of 110 million Filipinos by year-end. But vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said that target probably would not be possible till the first quarter of next year.

The Philippines began vaccinating its population on March 1 after receiving a shipment of vaccines from China. But since then, progress has been slow, with just 46 per cent of the targeted 77 million people fully vaccinated as at Nov 28.

The country is bracing itself for the new Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa and has since spread to some countries.

Presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles said at a news briefing: "This is not a question of whether it will emerge in the country. It is really a matter of time."

Faced with the threat of the new variant, the Philippines is again tightening its borders. It walked back a decision allowing fully vaccinated tourists to enter.

It also suspended flights from seven countries in Europe - Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy - in addition to an earlier ban on arrivals from several African nations.

Dr Alethea de Guzman, head of the Epidemiology Bureau, said these border controls should "prevent or delay as long as possible the entry of Omicron".

A task force overseeing the efforts to control the outbreak said it was looking at again requiring everyone to wear a face shield - an unpopular measure in the country. Mask wearing is still mandatory.

The Philippines - one of the region's worst-hit countries in terms of infections, deaths and economic losses - had been gradually reopening its borders and economy, with fewer than 1,000 cases being logged each day.

On Monday, the Health Ministry said it recorded just 665 infections. That was the lowest one-day count since July 14 last year, when infections dipped after a two-month surge.

Health officials said all regions were now at "low- and minimal-risk classification", with the average daily attack rate, which measures how fast the virus is spreading, now at the acceptable level of 1.02.

Just 20 per cent of hospital beds are now in use by Covid-19 patients. The Philippines has over 2.8 million cases so far, with some 48,000 deaths.

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