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COVID-19 Vaccine Jabs Key to the “New Normal”


COVID-19 Vaccine Jabs Key to the “New Normal”

IATF Special Adviser Dr. Ted Herbosa highlights the efforts towards inoculating the population, ensuring an end to the global pandemic.




Now that the Philippines is under Alert Level 1, can we declare victory against COVID-19? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 70 percent of the total population—those who are most in need of vaccination—of every country must be vaccinated. In the Philippines, the total number of fully vaccinated individuals according to the Department of Health (DOH) is 63,992,620 or 57 percent of the total population as of March 9, 2022. Although the figure is still far from the target, we can say that we are on the right track. Indeed, the Philippines has come a long way from when the country was first hit by the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020.

On March 15, 2022, two years after Metro Manila was first placed on lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) said all areas in the country were now at low risk for COVID-19.

The country has remained “at very low risk” for another COVID-19 surge, independent monitoring group OCTA Research said, citing global data as of March 18, 2022 confirming that COVID-19 cases decreased by 22 percent to an average of 527 cases daily during that week compared to the week prior.

It is no coincidence that the government is now ushering in a “new normal” as vaccinations are in full swing. This, after successive efforts to inoculate millions of Filipinos beginning March 2021.

Dr. Teodoro “Ted” Herbosa, Special Adviser of the Philippines’ National Task Force against COVID-19 (NTF), recalled the government’s COVID-19 vaccine plan, wherein a vaccine cluster within the Inter- Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF)-NTF was established, alongside the response cluster headed by the DOH, and the recovery cluster led by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).

The COVID-19 vaccine cluster aimed to administer “safe, equitable, and cost-effective immunization of 60 to 75 percent of Filipinos and ensure economic recovery and normalcy of people’s lives.”

“When we started the vaccinations last year, Secretary [Carlito] Galvez [Jr.] made me part of the vaccine cluster, which is under Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje of the Department of Health, and of course, headed by the Deputy Chief Implementer Secretary Vince Dizon. So, I am in effect Sec. Galvez’s adviser on the programs for improving vaccination,” Herbosa explains.

“I also linked him up with the Philippine Medical Association (PMA), particularly my colleague doctors that wanted to volunteer and help expand the vaccination program. In fact, the idea of National Vaccination Days (NVD), ‘Bayanihan Bakunahan’ came from the PMA. So, that was through a meeting I brokered,” he continues, referring to the massive vaccination drive to increase vaccine coverage that was first held on November 29 to December 1 last year. “I am optimistic that the number of cases will continue to go down, but I am cautious because I know that anytime, there could be another outbreak especially since people are flocking to political rallies,” he warns.

The NVD had four more rounds, with the latest phase held in March 2022 and aimed at inoculating those aged 12 and above in all regions.

“Now, we do it on a monthly basis. We had one in December and then another one in February, and then just recently, National Vaccination Days Part IV. So, that’s my contribution,” Herbosa explains.

The gargantuan task was not without challenges. While close to 64 million individuals in the country are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, only over 10.6 million have completed their booster shots, according to the National COVID-19 Vaccination Dashboard data as of March 9, 2022.

“It is fulfilling because it seems our woes will soon be over, as vaccines are really the way to get out of the pandemic. As we have vaccinated 64 million Filipinos, we are now at Alert Level 1. The vaccination program is indeed very effective, but there is much more to be done. We still need to vaccinate 77 million by the end of March.

The administration of booster shoots is quite slow, as only 10.5 million have had their booster shots. If you think about it, 32 million should have had their booster shots. How come there’s much less?” Herbosa remarks.

Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje had earlier explained that most fully immunized individuals do not see the urgency of getting a booster dose.

Herbosa attributes the vaccine hesitancy to disinformation: “Number one, people are not properly informed and believe in rumors that vaccines have complications,and are thus afraid of getting a third dose. Some think that two doses would suffice, not knowing that in three to six months, the chances of getting infected rises. We need a better information drive to convince people to get their third doses.”

The NTF thus continues to strive to find ways to achieve its goal of inoculating 90 million Filipinos by the first half of 2022, after hitting the initial target of 54 million fully vaccinated Filipinos in January.

On the national level, strategies are formed and cascaded from the National Vaccine Operations Center headquarters in the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) to local government units in regular online meetings.

Herbosa’s team conducts Coordinated Operations to Defeat the Epidemic or “CODE” team visits to different regions of the Philippines to check on the local government units’ vaccination programs and how they can help the LGUs that administer the vaccines. Meanwhile, their strategic communications team comes up with measures to create demand for the vaccines.

Among the measures that have proven effective is making the vaccines more accessible, such as “Resbakuna sa mga Botika”, where select drugstores and private clinics, like Healthway and Qualimed, served as additional vaccination sites to expand the mass vaccination drive and address the shortage of vaccinators. Private doctors have pitched in, too, as they have volunteered their services for vaccine administration.

The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and DOH recently set up a vaccination site at Plaza Miranda in Quiapo, Manila, which is operational every Friday. Other measures include putting up vaccination sites in malls and extending vaccination hours after office hours, such as Quezon City and Davao City’s “Bakuna Nights” to immunize workers whose only free time is in the evening.

Quezon City has also opened its online COVID-19 vaccine registration for businesses and companies in the city with 100 or more employees classified under A1, A2, A3 and A4 priority groups. Moreover, not a few local firms, including major corporations across the country, have committed to vaccinating their employees for free with AstraZeneca, Moderna, and other vaccines.

“The other strategy they’ve done is in some businesses, such as those in export processing zones, the LGU and DOH actually go to the workplaces and administer vaccines there. This addresses the concern of employees who would otherwise have to miss work and thus incur salary deductions,” Herbosa says.

“But if you bring the vaccines to them, it is more convenient as the managers facilitate things. There’s no loss of work, no loss of income on the part of the workers. That’s what we do to inoculate factory workers,” he adds.

So, are we winning the fight against COVID-19? Herbosa is “cautiously optimistic.”

A look at our Asian neighbors suggests that the Philippines is taking strides, as South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are experiencing high growth of cases.

Meanwhile, China on March 20 imposed stay-athome orders as it battles its biggest COVID-19 outbreak in two years. This, after the Omicron strain has broken through its defenses, putting about 4.5 million people in Jilin City under lockdown.

“What’s really scary is South Korea because South Korea just finished an electoral campaign. They just elected a new president with a very active political campaigning, which is where we are now. So, will this be the case for the Philippines after May? That was also that case with the Delta variant from India. The Delta variant spread during election season, and this spread to other parts of the world, including the Philippines,” Herbosa cautions.

“I am optimistic that the number of cases will continue to go down, but I am cautious because I know that anytime, there could be another outbreak especially since people are flocking to political rallies,” he warns.

However, Herbosa draws positives from the consistent significant decline in COVID-19 cases, the availability of vaccines, and the learnings since 2020: “In March of 2020, we knew nothing about the disease and how to treat it, and seven doctors died in the first month in February. So, everybody was scared. Now we have vaccines, so all doctors and nurses are vaccinated. We beat the Omicron variant. No nurse or doctor had to be hospitalized. Those who caught the virus just had to stay at home, so hospitals were not congested even if we had 39,000 cases a day.”

The availability of medicines and treatment, such as molnupiravir, paxlovid, high-flow nasal cannula, remdesivir, tocilizumab, also make a huge difference. Talks about transitioning to endemic response are now on the table.

“In fact, the WHO has said that it seems we could consider the virus as endemic; it seems the pandemic is coming to an end. It’s just like the Spanish influenza. We still have influenza but we are no longer that scared. Other countries such as Denmark, UK, and Singapore have taken this direction, living with the virus,)” Herbosa says.

As the Filipinos learn to live with COVID-19, Herbosa reiterates that some things will remain: face masks and vaccines.

“Whatever the status ‘yan, even if cases go down to zero, I will still mask up, I will still get vaccinated. I will tell my patients to get vaccinated so that they will be protected. Those two are our biggest protection,” Herbosa emphasizes.

“To me, let’s value the two: knowledge through education that will keep you healthy and keep you earning; and our health because if you are healthy, you can continue to work, you can continue to be a father, a mother, a son, a daughter. You will survive,” he says.

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