Philippines 'dodges a bullet' as Omicron outbreak relents

Close to 60 million out of some 110 million Filipinos are already fully vaccinated. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - The Philippines seems to have put the worst of a massive coronavirus outbreak behind it, with signs that the current surge fuelled by the extremely infectious Omicron variant has already crested.

"If we're talking about the numbers, I think we've reached the highest… (The numbers are) consistently going down and aligned with our projections," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters on Tuesday (Jan 25).

The Health Ministry reported around 17,000 new cases on Tuesday, a steep drop from nearly 40,000 just 10 days ago.

Covid-19 cases in Metro Manila - an urban sprawl of 16 cities and home to over 13 million - plunged to less than 3,000 on Tuesday from a high of over 18,000 on Jan 10. It now accounts for just 15 per cent of the daily national caseload from up to 60 per cent early this month.

The reproduction number in Metro Manila - which measures how fast a viral outbreak is spreading or receding - plunged to 0.5 this week from a high of six on Jan 3. A value of one means a viral outbreak is under control.

Infections elsewhere, meanwhile, are either plateauing or slowing down.

Some areas are seeing the start of a surge. But health officials expect a similar trend of a spike, followed by a sudden plunge in infections, there as well.

Dr Vergeire said unlike in previous outbreaks, hospitals were not overwhelmed with patients this time around, despite what had so far been the Philippines' biggest surge in infections since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

"We continue to observe a decoupling in Metro Manila. The high number of cases is not leading to a spike in severe or critical cases," she said.

Less than 10 per cent of Covid-19 patients are in intensive care or have had to be intubated. Most have moderate or mild symptoms.

About half of all hospital beds are now occupied. But health officials say that is acceptable, considering the number of people getting sick.

Dr Eva Maria de la Paz, executive director of the National Institutes of Health, said the Philippines appears to have dodged a bullet.

"The data is showing us that vaccination has averted a worst-case scenario in the Philippines," she told reporters.

Close to 60 million out of some 110 million Filipinos are already fully vaccinated. Another 50 million have had at least one dose, and some 6 million have already received booster shots.

Some 93 per cent of Covid-19 patients who died in the latest surge were unvaccinated.

The government has downgraded the risk level from coronavirus infections to "high" from "critical".

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Monday (Jan 24) said with the downtrend in infections, the alert level in Metro Manila could be "de-escalated" in February.

That would allow restaurants, amusement parks, tourist attractions, beauty salons and fitness studios to open to more customers.

In-person classes, contact sports, funfairs, casinos and churches could reopen.

Metro Manila and several other densely populated metropolises are currently on the government's third-highest level of alert.

"It appears that Covid-19 cases have peaked already. Cases continue to decline in (Metro Manila) and the percentage of infections that the region contributes to the total caseload is shrinking," said Dr Duque.

Vaccine coverage has also been "good", he added.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.