COVID-19 ‘OMICRON’ VARIANT SPARKS GLOBAL FEARS Virus hits San Francisco; PHL on alert, sets travel ban

By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief

MANILA/SAN FRANCISCO —Even as COVID-19 cases have drastically dropped to its lowest level following expanded vaccination that now includes young kids and booster shots to those who had completed two jabs, government and health authorities in the Philippines, including those in the private sector, have started scrambling for measures to detect and stop the possible entry or spread of the new dread variant called Omicron.

Immediately, the government barred people coming in from South Africa where the variant was first discovered and six neighboring countries, namely, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and  Mozambique.

(See related story)

Philippine health officials also tightened surveillance on possible carriers of the Omicron variant, resulting to the isolation and forced quarantine of a Filipino and two foreigners who arrived from South Africa and flew to Bacolod City and Negros Occidental where they serve as power consultants.

To prevent the possible spread of the Omicron variant, the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) said around 63 Filipinos from red list countries or areas that are at high risk for COVID-19 transmission are also at the quarantine facilities.

At press time, over a dozen countries and territories have detected cases, including Australia, Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Brazil Portugal and Japan, triggering global alarm.

Latin America reported its first two cases Tuesday — in people who travelled from South Africa to Brazil — and first cases were confirmed in Japan, one day after it barred all foreign arrivals.

California’s first Omicron variant was also detected in a South Africa traveller, according to the Communicable Diseases Center (CDC) and California state officials.

The Omicron variant has propelled a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in South Africa in recent weeks, the country’s health officials reported to the Parliament, calling the situation “worrying”.

South Africa was the first country to detect Omicron, a new variant of the coronavirus with a high number of mutations, reporting its first cases on November 25 to the World Health Organization.

The discovery of Omicron has caused global alarm, with countries limiting travel from southern Africa for fear it could spread quickly even in vaccinated populations and the World Health Organization saying it carries a high risk of infection surges.

In another development, Philippine private hospitals have been alerted to prepare for a possible spike in COVID-19 infections over fears of the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, according to Dr. Jose Rene De Grano, president of Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines Inc.

The PHA president assured that the hospitals have now ample supplies of oxygen and vacant beds amid a drop in COVID-19 cases in the country.

“Handa po ang mga private hospitals kung magkaroon man ulit ng mga bagong surge o bagong cases ng COVID (Private hospitals are prepared in case there will be a surge or new cases of COVID.),” he added.
Meanwhile, vaccination against coronavirus should be made mandatory, said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the chairman of the National Task Force Against COVID-19 as the country wrapped up its 3-day inoculation drive.

“Yes, it should be mandatory. Everyone should contribute to the health of the community. Those unvaccinated are vulnerable of getting the virus and getting seriously sick. They not only burden the state by their hospitalization but will also spread the virus around,” he said.

“Mahirap kung walang batas (It’s hard without a law). However, we can impose restrictions to unvaccinated people,” he added.
The Philippines has so far fully vaccinated 35.9 million against COVID-19, while 46.3 million have received an initial dose and 233,949 have received a third dose or a booster shot.
It has so far immunized 5 million more during the National Vaccination Days from Monday to Wednesday. Another 3-day vaccination event is eyed to be held from Dec. 15 to 17.
Later, WHO warned blanket travel bans will not prevent the spread of Omicron, as more countries rushed to impose curbs and the first cases of the new COVID strain were detected in Latin America, adding that “blanket” travel bans risked doing more harm than good, just as Canada expanded its restrictions.

The country’s total number of recovered coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) cases has reached 2,768,999 after 951 new recoveries were reported on Wednesday.

In its latest case bulletin, the Department of Health (DOH) noted that recoveries account for 97.7 percent of the total case count which has reached 2,833,038 since the start of the pandemic last year.

Meanwhile, some 500 new infections brought the total number of active cases nationwide to 15,327 — lower than Tuesday’s 15,800 active infections.

Wednesday’s new infections, however, are slightly higher than Tuesday’s 425 – the lowest single-day tally of new infections this year.

About 756 of these active cases are asymptomatic, 7,183 are mild, 1,067 are critical, 2,489 are severe, and 3,832 are moderate.

Some 167 new deaths were reported which brought the country’s Covid-19 fatalities to 48,712.

According to DOH data on November 29, about 2.1 percent of 30,841 who were tested turned out positive for Covid-19.
In a related development, the Philippines may see less than 500 new daily COVID-19 infections by Christmas, according to OCTA research group.

Dr. Guido David of independent research group OCTA said most parts of the country could shift to Alert Level 1, the loosest of the current quarantine restrictions, if there was no threat of the new variant named Omicron.

“Baka nga bumaba pa [to] less than 500 by Christmas. Sa Metro Manila, baka bumaba pa to less than 100 na lang,” he said.
“Kasi talagang parang nawawala na. Parang nag-vanishing act na lang ‘yung Delta bigla,” he said.
 Meanwhile, a total of 1,839,846 college students have been vaccinated against Covid-19 so far, Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Chair J. Prospero de Vera III said.
In an online media briefing, de Vera said the figure is equivalent to 45.91 percent of the tertiary student population which has reached 4,007,795 as of November 25.

Meantime, some 239,431 or 82.45 percent of 290,380 higher education institution (HEI) personnel, both teaching and non-teaching, have been vaccinated.

For the three-day national vaccination program that ended Wednesday, about 375 HEIs and 10,504 student and personnel volunteers have participated, with 244,064 tertiary students targeted to be vaccinated.