Philippines revises Covid-19 response amid biggest surge in cases

The focus of testing is now on the elderly, health workers and those especially vulnerable to Covid-19. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - The Philippines is revising its testing, isolation and contact-tracing policies, as it continues to pivot towards a "living with Covid-19" approach amid an explosive outbreak of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

"Blanket testing" is no longer the norm, as the government instead adopts "sentinel surveillance", said Dr Edsel Salvana, an epidemiologist and adviser to the Health Ministry.

Those who come in contact with someone with Covid-19 are no longer required to get themselves tested if they are fully vaccinated and only displaying mild symptoms or not showing any signs of an infection at all.

They will have to undergo quarantine or isolation, albeit for a shorter period. 

The focus of testing is now on the elderly, health workers and those especially vulnerable to Covid-19.

"Testing shall now be optional for community-level actions," said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.

Dr Salvana said that blanket testing "is not sustainable" with infections skyrocketing.

The Philippines is battling its biggest surge in Covid-19 infections with cases soaring from less than 500 on Dec 25 to more than 30,000 in recent days.

On Friday (Jan 14), the number hit a record 37,207.

The Philippines, with more than 3.1 million cases reported so far, is the second-worst hit country for Covid-19 in South-east Asia, after Indonesia.

As Omicron tears through capital Manila, and elsewhere, health officials have had to review their policies.

"The updated policies of the Philippines attempts to find acceptable standards, given our current context, and allow more flexibility to groups and sectors that can strictly implement infection, prevention and control procedures," said Dr Vergeire.

Isolation for those who are fully vaccinated and experiencing just mild or moderate Covid-19 symptoms has been shortened from 10 to just seven days.

The period of quarantine for "probable cases" - defined as those without symptoms but could likely have been infected through close contact - has been trimmed from seven to five days, unless they develop symptoms.

The government is also dialling back on contact tracing.

"You'll be wasting a lot of resources doing contact tracing when you know the cases are already on an upswing, accelerating, and more and more communities are being infected," Health Secretary Franciso Duque said.

Dr Vergeire said untargetted contact tracing was no longer doable, as the chances that most households already had infections were "very high".

She said the new policies also took into account the capacity of hospitals to deal with a surge in Covid-19 patients.

"Right now, we see a decoupling (in Metro Manila). Just like in other countries experiencing an Omicron surge, the increase in cases is not causing a spike in hospital admissions for severe and critical cases. This shows that vaccines are working," she added.

About half of intensive care, isolation and ward hospital beds are currently occupied.

Health officials say that is acceptable, considering how many people already have Covid-19.

What concerns them more are the number of health workers getting sick.

The Health Ministry reported that more than 6,500 health workers in Metro Manila - 7.2 per cent of the total number in the region's hospitals - are already under quarantine.

Data scientists with the independent Octa Research group said the Omicron outbreak seemed to be peaking in Metro Manila - an urban sprawl of 16 cities and home to more than 13 million people.

A key statistic, the reproduction number, which measures how fast a virus is spreading or receding, is down in Metro Manila to 3.77 this week from a high of 6 on Jan 3.

A value of 1 means a viral outbreak is under control.

But cases are rising elsewhere.

The government has placed about 50 cities, towns and provinces across the sprawling island chain under its third-highest alert level, similar to Metro Manila.

Level 5 is the highest state of alert.

Dr Vergeire said the Health Ministry's own experts do not expect cases to peak until the end of this month or possibly the second week of February.

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