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Tighten border controls urged as China COVID surged

The country must tighten border controls and require negative COVID-19 tests for travelers from China, a public health advocate said, even as the Department of Health insisted Monday that imposing additional restrictions or revising travel protocols should be science- and evidence-based.

This developed as reports surfaced that hospitals in Metro Manila have ordered their staffs to resume wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect against the anticipated surge of COVID cases after the holidays amid relaxed restrictions across the country.

“Several countries, more than 10, including the United States, through their Centers for Disease Control, already required a negative RT-PCR, 48 hours before arrival, particularly for travelers from mainland China,” cardiologist Dr. Tony Leachon said in a television interview.

“We should follow this because even if we go on heightened alert, the RT-PCR is still the confirmatory test. So, we need that,” he added.

The Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines (PHAP) had yet to issue a statement on the situation of its members in the National Capital Region, but sources told the Standard a handful of big hospitals had already ordered full PPEs, a common sight at the height of the pandemic.

The DOH earlier issued an extremely urgent memo ordering a “heightened alert” to intensify monitoring at all ports of entry.

All airport and seaport terminals have also been alerted for a possible re-establishment of testing requirements for arriving travelers from China and other countries tagged as “high-alert” for COVID-19.

At present, however, the beefed-up protocols do not include requiring a negative COVID-19 test result from inbound passengers.

“Particularly for incoming vessels with history of travel from China, we have imposed meticulous process to assess vaccination status, exposure, and symptoms. This shall be met with strict implementation of quarantine and isolation protocols as warranted,” the DOH said in its memo.

Leachon, a former government advisor, said the current protocols in response to the COVID-19 situation in China during the holidays are not enough.

DOH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said the country’s health protocols remain effective against any COVID-19 variant, including that of Omicron subvariant BF.7 which has been driving up infections in the mainland.

“Our current protocols remain effective against COVID-19, regardless of the variant,” the DOH said in a statement.

Former health secretary Janet Garin, for her part, said she still sees no need to restrict the entry of travelers from China as fatalities from the illness had been reduced by COVID-19 vaccinations.

“Balancing is key. In China, mandatory [COVID-19] testing for all [is conducted] every two to three days. Their National ID can determine those who did not comply. Hence, expect a lot of [COVID-19] positives. But deaths are not as many,” Garin, now a congresswoman for Iloilo, said.

“There might be allegations of non-transparency but what’s the use of reporting a million asymptomatics if death is very minimal? Hence, on China and COVID-19, decisions should be science-based. If we do mandatory [COVID-19] testing [for travelers from] other countries and even [here in the] Philippines, we will see the same picture [of many COVID-19 positive cases but not necessarily symptomatic or fatal],” Garin added.

Meanwhile, independent monitoring OCTA Research Group said Monday the 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate in the National Capital Region (NCR) has gone below the 10 percent threshold by the end of 2022.

OCTA fellow Dr. Guido David, in a tweet, said NCR’s positivity rate — or the percentage of people who were found positive for COVID-19 among the total number of individuals tested — decreased from 11.6 percent on December 24 to 9.1 percent on December 31.

Other provinces in Luzon also showed positive developments with their respective positivity rates, like those in Albay, Batangas, Bulacan, Cagayan, Camarines Sur, Cavite, Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Kalinga, La Union, Laguna, Mountain Province, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Quezon, Rizal, Tarlac, and Zambales.

Positivity rate was seen the lowest in Bulacan at 4.4 percent, down from the previous week’s 9.2 percent.

However, Bataan and Benguet both recorded an uptick from December 24 to December 31.

Isabela, likewise, had an increase from 21.2 percent to 37.6 percent over the same period.

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