December 6, 2022

The country is now among the 77 countries where cases of the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 has been detected with the confirmation of two imported cases of the variant of concern among 48 samples sequenced on Dec. 14.

With the rising number of the latest Covid-19 variant, the World Health Organization wants to make it very clear: “Vaccines alone will not get any country out of the crisis. Countries can – and must – prevent the spread of Omicron with measures that work today. It’s not vaccines instead of mask, distancing, ventilation, or hand hygiene. Do it all, consistently, and well.”

Consistent with this call, the DOH in its Dec. 15 advisory urged the public to adhere to the minimum public health standards by properly wearing face masks, frequently washing hands with soap and water or alcohol, observing physical distancing, ensuring proper ventilation, and avoiding crowded areas.

With the holiday season, the DOH also advised the public should avoid holding mass gatherings to curb virus transmission and urged those unvaccinated to get their shots to add to the protection that vaccines provide against the Covid-19.

The DOH reported the two Omicron variant cases are incoming travelers. One is a returning overseas Filipino who arrived from Japan on Dec. 1 via Philippine Airlines while the other case is a Nigerian who arrived from Nigeria on Nov. 30 via Oman Air.

Both cases were admitted to an isolation facility on the same dates. 

The DOH said it is determining possible close contacts among the passengers during the flights of the two travelers and is verifying the test results and health status of all passengers of the flights to determine if there are other confirmed cases or passengers who became symptomatic after their arrival.

Including cases of the dominant Delta variant in the country now totalling 7,919, the DOH added it is closely working with local government units for the latter to conduct active case finding and ensure Covid-19 cases are immediately isolated, tested, and contract traced and that eligible samples for sequencing are submitted to the DOH, University of the Philippines-Philippine Genome Center, and the UP National Institute of Health.

The WHO said Omicron is a variant of the virus that causes the Covid-19 and has been detected by scientists in South Africa and currently in multiple countries. It is likely to be present in many other countries, even if it has not been detected yet.

WHO said it is not yet known how easily Omicron spreads, how serious its symptoms are, or how it affects protection from vaccines.

In a Dec. 14 statement, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the WHO said Omicron is spreading at a rate that have not seen with any previous variant and they are concerned people are dismissing Omicron as mild.

He warned even if Omicron causes less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.

“I need to be very clear: Vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis. Countries can – and must – prevent the spread of Omicron with measures that work today. It’s not vaccines instead of mask, distancing, ventilation, or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well,” Ghebreyesus said in a video posted on the WHO official Facebook account.

On Dec. 15, Ghebreyesus expressed the WHO’s concern that booster programs will repeat vaccine hoarding they observe this year and exacerbate inequity since the emergence of Omicron has prompted some counties to roll out booster programs for their entire adult populations.

“WHO is not against boosters. We are against inequity. Our main concern is to save lives, everywhere. The order matters. Giving boosters to groups at low risk of severe disease or death simply endangers the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary doses because of supply constraints,” he said.

On the other hand, Ghebreyesus said giving additional doses to people at high risk can save more lives than giving primary doses to those at low risk.

He added more data are needed to draw firmer conclusions as emerging data from South Africa suggest increased risk of reinfection with Omicron.

“Even though we still need answers to some crucial questions, we are not defenseless against Omicron or Delta. The steps countries take today, and in the coming days or weeks will determine how Omicron unfolds. If countries wait until their hospitals start to fill up, it will be too late. Don’t wait. Act now,” Ghebreyesus said. – Hanna C. Lacsamana