Experts warn of surge in hospitalization, strained healthcare system
The ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases will likely hit record numbers, tax the country’s ability to test for the disease, and overburden its hospitals, health experts warned President Rodrigo Duterte Friday.
In a briefing for the President, the executive director of the Philippine Genome Center, Cynthia Saloma, said although the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 seems generally milder than other variants, the sheer number of cases could trigger a flood of hospitalizations that could push the health care system to a breaking point.
“Many will be hospitalized so we have to be prepared for this,” Saloma said.
This developed as uniformed medical personnel will be deployed to selected hospitals to augment the health workforce, as the rise in COVID-19 cases continues, the Department of Health said on Friday.
Health Undersecretary Rosario Vergeire said the government has also shortened isolation and quarantine periods for fully vaccinated health workers infected with or exposed to COVID-19 to further augment the health workforce.
The administration is also considering expanding the criteria in determining the alert level for a certain area, to include availability of health workers amid rising cases of COVID-19, the Palace said Friday.
Acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles made the announcement, saying: “We have to consider the availability of our healthcare workers in determining alert level, and this is being studied by the IATF,” referring to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Citing the experience of other countries where their testing centers were also overwhelmed, Saloma said the country should also be ready to address the long queues.
“So, you will notice, for example, Australia with 92 percent vaccination, 64,000 were positive yesterday or today, and of course, France, with 300,000, and in other countries… These are countries with much, much better resources than us, and yet even their testing centers are stretched. Sometimes, they ran out of testing kits.”
Saloma said the DOH and other agencies should study how to maximize testing to avoid people waiting in long lines outside waiting to be tested.
With vaccination and the observance of public health protocols, fewer people will go to hospitals, she said, but this could be offset by the sheer number of infections and the still large number of people who are not vaccinated.
It was very important that the public be prepared for daily increases in the number of cases because of the nature of the Omicron variant, Saloma said.
With the Omicron variant, she said, the rise in cases was very fast.
“We are looking at figures of 5,000, then 10,000, then 70,000 today, and tomorrow it will be much higher. So, it’s very, very important that we manage these numbers as perceived by our public because it will indeed increase,” Saloma told the President.
Dr. Marissa Alejandria, director of the Institute of Clinical Epidemiology (ICE), stressed the importance of preparing for the new variant.
She said the concerning feature of this variant compared to Delta, again is its high transmissibility.
“So, our advice to the public is to isolate right away even if with just very mild symptoms. Even if there’s still no results, no test, one should isolate because it can spread to the entire household,” she said.
Alejandria also spoke on the guidelines to manage mild cases at home so that they won’t need to go to a hospital.
If milder cases are isolated at home, hospital beds can be preserved for severe and critical cases, she said.
“So that’s our appeal to the public. And then wear mask properly when you go out of the house,” she said. She also urged the public to continue washing their hands and avoid crowds and superspreader events.
The DOH on Thursday said it is now preparing for the “worst case scenario” amid the rise in new COVID-19 cases, which is most likely driven by the more transmissible Omicron variant.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said they are prepared to source health care workers from different sectors to aid in the virus fight.
Duque said this includes post-graduate interns and health care workers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).
“We are making sure that all available healthcare professionals will be on deck and prepare for the worst case scenario,” Duque added.
If hospitals in Metro Manila become overwhelmed again due to the high number of people testing positive for COVID-19, his agency would deploy health frontliners from the different parts of the country.
The Philippines is seeing a fresh surge of new COVID-19 cases amid the local cases of the Omicron variant, which studies showed is milder than Delta.
The wave of infections due to the Delta variant last year stretched the country’s health care system beyond its capacity, with hundreds of patients lining up outside emergency rooms just to be admitted.
The DOH said Friday that the chances of the coronavirus mutating increase as more people get infected and warned against getting infected on purpose to achieve “natural immunity” in reaction to a statement from the OCTA Research Group.
“If there are more infections, there is a higher chance for the virus to replicate, which is their cycle. They can reproduce,” Vergeire said at a Palace briefing.
“Most importantly, this will give the virus a higher chance to mutate.”
Vergeire made the statement in response to a statement from OCTA’s Fr. Nic Austriaco, a molecular biologist, that the Omicron variant could provide population immunity through the antibodies of those who have recovered.
But Vergeire urged the public to remain vigilant and not voluntarily get infected with the illness due to such statements.
“This is not the direction of our response. We need to be careful; we need to prevent further transmission so we can prevent the variant from further producing,” she said.
Dr. Edsel Salvana and Dr. Anna Ong-Lim, members of the DOH Technical Advisory Group, said the coronavirus has continued to surprise them.
Salvana stressed that the variant is not a vaccine.
“Omicron is a virus. It’s not a vaccine, and it’s not like vaccines that are very safe and are not contagious. Omicron can cause harm,” he said.
Ong-Lim said that, although there are studies showing that those who have recovered from Omicron have antibodies that are effective against Delta, there is no definite proof that it is effective against other variants of concern.
Ong-Lim said she also cannot say the variant is the end of the pandemic.
“Although we want this to be the last, that there will be no further variants, unfortunately, we cannot say with certainty that this is the end of COVID-19,” she said.
“I hope it’s true, but we should be careful. Don’t voluntarily try to acquire the sickness,” she said.
At present, the Philippines has confirmed 43 cases of the Omicron variant.
Dr. John Wong, a member of the DOH Senior Technical Advisory Group, said the government should prioritize inoculating people who have yet to receive their first COVID-19 shot, as these people are the most vulnerable against the virus.
Wong’s statement was made after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered village chiefs to “restrain” and “arrest” people unvaccinated against COVID-19 and are still roaming around.
Duterte appealed to doctors and nurses undergoing internship to help the government contain the rising number of coronavirus infections, as he vowed to increase hazard pay among other benefits.
Duterte said the government has to look at the worst-case scenario and convert facilities into extension hospitals and deploy additional medical workers.
Wong told the President it was most important to vaccinate the rest of the population.
“A lot of the people in the hospitals now… both locally and also globally in many of the countries with Omicron, a lot of people in these hospitals are people without vaccination, not the people who are vaccinated,” he said.
Wong said that while studies showed that Omicron appeared milder than delta, and fewer people so far have died, reducing transmission is still key.
This could be done by restricting mobility, contact, and having people tested against COVID-19 at the start of symptoms, he said.
In other developments:
The province of Laguna is now under Alert Level 3 starting Friday, amid an uptick of COVID-19 cases in the area. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Rene Bagamasbad said they counted 697 active cases, up from only 35 on Dec. 31. New cases were almost doubling every day, he added.
The IHU COVID-19 variant recently detected in France is not a variant of concern, infectious disease expert Salvana said. “IHU is the name of the institute in France that described the particular lineage of the virus, and the WHO has been monitoring it since November last year,” he said. “So far it has a lot of mutations, but it doesn’t show anything like survival advantage or immune evasion that we see in Delta or Omicron.”