Buildings stand illuminated at night in the Makati district of Manila, the Philippines. Photographer: Hannah Reyes Morales/Bloomberg FILE)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the world, a glimmer of hope somehow appeared in 2021 for the Philippines as fresh coronavirus infections dropped to hundreds daily, while close to 49 million Filipinos are now fully vaccinated against the viral illness. However, the Philippines also faced different challenges this year before acquiring the said gains in its ongoing fight against the pandemic.

Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III described year 2020 as the “the most difficult year in the history of the Department” as the then novel coronavirus turned into a pandemic. Things have changed one year later, as DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire described 2021 as “a year of recovery and progress.”

“While we are in the continuous battle against COVID-19 and have implemented lockdown measures due to surges and the emergence of new variants, we have intensified our recovery and response programs,” Vergeire told Manila Bulletin.

COVID-19 cases, threats of variants

The Philippines’ daily tally of cases ranged around 1,000 to 2,000 during the first two months of this year. However, cases started to increase again in March, even recording 10,000 to 15,000 cases daily then. The rise in cases was driven by the detection of two variants of concern—the Alpha and Beta.

This prompted the government to place the Greater Manila area to the strictest enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) from March 29 to April 11—until the quarantine classification was later downgraded.

From May to July, the number of COVID-19 cases nationwide dropped to fewer than 10,000. However, the presence of the Delta coronavirus variant was detected in the country. The impact of the Delta virus variant started to be felt in August as it spread into the community. COVID-19 cases swelled to more than 20,000 daily. It was on Sept. 11 that the Philippines saw its highest single-day tally to date—which was 26,303.

Some parts of the country were placed once again under ECQ in August until the government made changes in the implementation of community quarantine—focusing more on granular lockdowns.

“Despite the continuous efforts of the Health Department, together with the concerned agencies, it cannot be denied that there are a few notable challenges that the agencies have faced over the past year. One of which is consistently urging the public to adopt the ‘BIDA Solusyon’ as part of their behavioral lifestyle to cut down further transmission of the virus through the use of face masks, physical distancing, and frequent hand washing/sanitizing,” said Vergeire.

“DOH worked on communicating and reinforcing minimum public health standards at the height of the emergence of variants, focusing on areas where increases in COVID-19 cases are observed. However, there were still instances where many had defied mass gathering restrictions and breached health protocols despite the strict warnings against the same,” she added.

To cut down the chain of transmission, Vergeire said that the DOH worked closely with the different government agencies and other medical associations in the implementation of prevent, detect, isolate, treat and reintegrate (PDITR) strategies and “strengthen its implementation through expansion of our hospitals, laboratories, and diagnostic methods, active case finding in LGUs, reinforcement of our public health protocols and safety measures in establishments and other public settings, increased our testing capacity,” and “expanding and updating the list of COVID-19 drugs and medicines.”

The Philippines was able to surpass the challenges brought about by the Delta variant. Since Nov. 24, the daily number of infections has been below 1,000. On Dec. 21, the country logged 168 cases of COVID-19—-the lowest in 19 months. It was the lowest since May 22, 2020 when the Philippines recorded 163 infections.

However, the more transmissible Omicron variant was detected in the Philippines this month. World Health Organization (WHO) Country Representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe said there is a possibility that the Omicron may replace Delta as the dominant coronavirus variant in the Philippines due to its higher transmissibility. As of this writing, the DOH has so far reported four Omicron cases.

COVID-19 vaccination, medicines

The Philippines’ arsenal against the pandemic was also boosted with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines on its shores this year.

On Feb. 28, the country’s first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived, which paved the way for the start of its vaccination program against the viral illness on March 1. The country’s very first vaccine was the one developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech—which was then donated by the Chinese government.

The COVID-19 vaccination program was only initially available to the country’s healthcare workers due to the limited supply of vaccines. The vaccination drive gradually expanded to other sectors of the population as the supply of vaccines became steady. Currently, the vaccination program covers individuals aged 12 and above.

As of Dec. 28, the Philippines has already administered more than 107 million vaccine doses. At least 48.64 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated, 57.01 million people received their first vaccine shot so far, and 1.61 million individuals got their booster shots. The government is targeting to fully vaccinate 54 million Filipinos by yearend.

“Though we were hurdled with the procurement and supplies of vaccines at the onset of the rollout, we were able to acquire sufficient supplies through donations from Covax Facility, UNICEF, ADB HEAL, and other countries,” said Vergeire.

“In relation to the National COVID-19 Vaccination Program, vaccine hesitancy of the public was once a dilemma of the government which affected the vaccination program. This issue is peddled with the rampant dissemination of misinformation on COVID-19 and vaccines,” she added.

Vergeire said that the DOH continues “to educate the public on the benefits of vaccines” through its communication channels.

“In addition to this, DOH underscores the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination program which yielded positive results reflected in the numbers of our COVID-19 cases and admission/hospitalization rate. Since March of 2021, we realize the value and efforts of our local government units in making vaccination against COVID-19 more accessible to their constituents, as well as their support in echoing our vaccination advocacies,” the DOH spokesperson said.

“With the stability of the vaccine supply, the DOH doubles down efforts in our vaccine information caravans to increase vaccine willingness and uptake among our fellowmen,” she added.

Aside from vaccines, Vergeire also underscored the importance of medicines being used in treating COVID-19 patients.

“The DOH has recognized some COVID-19 Investigational drugs which are helpful to COVID-19 patients with moderate to mild symptoms. Ronapreve, for instance, which is a monoclonal antibody drug to prevent and fight COVID-19 was issued with an Emergency Use Authorization by the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” she said. Also, the FDA recently granted an EUA to the antiviral pill molnupiravir.

Lessons

Almost two years into the global health crisis, Vergeire said that they “continuously learn from our pandemic response.”

“The Department believes in certainty that it has exhausted its efforts and explored every opportunity to provide quality services and programs to the public, but never misses the opportunity of improving and enhancing the same,” she said.

“While the nation’s COVID-19 response may not be perfect just as the same to other countries during a global health crisis, DOH always chooses to burn the midnight oil and learn from the deficiencies to continue serving the best for our fellowmen. The Department of Health continues to improve its response strategies against the COVID-19 pandemic from each lesson and feedback it encounters,” she added.


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://mb.com.ph/2021/12/30/yearender-doh-sees-2021-as-year-of-recovery-and-progress-amid-covid-19-pandemic/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=yearender-doh-sees-2021-as-year-of-recovery-and-progress-amid-covid-19-pandemic)