The government is still scrambling to locate seven travelers from South Africa who arrived in the Philippines weeks ago, but authorities assured the public that they are beefing up the local health care system to prepare for a possible Covid-19 surge caused by the Omicron variant.
Malacañang on Wednesday said it is monitoring the availability of isolation and quarantine facilities, hospital beds, intensive care units, mechanical ventilators, and other medicines and equipment used to treat coronavirus patients across the country as part of its preparations against the more transmissible virus type.
“We are preparing them for the worst-case scenario… to make sure that we are ready if and when the time comes,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said in an interview with CNN Philippines.
Nograles did not elaborate on the “worst case” scenario he was referring to, but he acknowledged that the Omicron variant would inevitably enter the Philippines, which scientists fear is more infectious than other virus types and may possibly be resistant to available vaccines.
The country has yet to detect a local case of the Omicron variant, and most of Covid-19 beds and equipment remain available at press time amid the decreasing number of daily cases.
Only 26 percent of 3,600 ICU beds, 25 percent of 19,800 isolation beds, 13 percent of 12,900 ward beds, and 14 percent of 3,000 ventilators have been occupied in the country as of Tuesday.
The figures were significantly lower than the 80-percent utilization rates posted by the country in August and September or during the case surge caused by Delta.
In Metro Manila, however, health care utilization rates are slightly higher. Some 29 percent of 1,300 ICU beds, 21 percent of 4,700 isolation beds, 19 percent of 3,900 ward beds, and 16 percent of 900,000 ventilators have been used in the capital region.
It remains unclear how the presence of Omicron would affect the country’s Covid-19 tally and health care system.
Since the World Health Organization classified the novel virus type as a “variant of concern,” the pandemic task force has imposed travel bans, strengthened border controls, and directed its data analytics arm to craft statistical models or projections showing the possible impact of Omicron in the Philippines.
For the meantime, authorities are also monitoring countries with spikes in Covid-19 cases for possible inclusion in the country’s travel ban, Nograles said.
“European countries, for instance, are the countries that we’re really taking a closer look at,” said the official.
The Philippines is also seeking to vaccinate more Filipinos in the second round of the mass vaccination drive set on 15 to 17 December, he added.
Tracking 7 returning OFW
Authorities, meanwhile, are tracking seven returning Filipinos who arrived in the Philippines between 15 and 29 November. They were from South Africa, where the highly-mutated variant was first discovered.
Of the total unlocated individuals, three had given the contact number of their manning agencies and not their personal numbers, one had an incorrect number, and another had an incomplete number. The remaining two were uncontactable, according to the Department of Health (DOH).
The department allayed concerns, saying it is getting in touch with local government units and other partners to locate the said individuals to ensure that they are not experiencing coronavirus symptoms.
The quarantine bureau, on the other hand, is also coordinating with the police and interior department to find the missing travelers.
While they have all yielded negative results for Covid-19 upon their arrival in the country, the DOH said the returning Filipinos should still submit themselves to authorities for checking.
Roberto Salvador Jr., director of the quarantine bureau, admitted that the unlocated travelers have moved past the strict protocols on arriving passengers since they do not have their own local contact numbers.
“We verify their information upon their arrival in the country. Most of them give valid contact numbers, but some of our countrymen do not have their own phone numbers so they give the contact details of their agencies instead,” he said in a televised briefing.
“We have their addresses so we are coordinating with police to locate them,” Salvador added.
Nograles also appealed to the returning workers to submit themselves for coronavirus testing as a precautionary measure against the variant.
While there is a law penalizing Filipinos who give false information during a public health emergency, he said the government is merely asking for the cooperation of the still unlocated travelers.
“Whoever you are, please come immediately and report yourself, submit yourself for testing,” he said. “We’re not scaring you and we just want your cooperation.”
Philippine authorities have so far detected 2.8 million coronavirus infections, of which 49,600 have been fatal.