Metro Manila, parts of Philippines enter ‘new normal’ in COVID-19 pandemic

Under Alert Level 1, the capital region and 38 other areas usher in the most relaxed regulations in nearly 3 years. Still, health officials stress the crisis is not over.

MANILA, Philippines – After nearly three years of living with restrictive measures to curb the coronavirus, the National Capital Region and 38 other areas are now under Alert Level 1 or what government considers as the “new normal” and as COVID-19 has yet to become endemic in the country.

The deescalation of quarantine restrictions, approved by the government’s coronavirus task force, is a significant development in the Philippines’ fight against a virus that has infected over 3.6 million Filipinos and killed over 56,400.

The nation was among the hardest hits in Southeast Asia and it saw some of the harshest restrictions, as well as one of the longest lockdowns imposed in the world. COVID-19 restrictions were first implemented in the Philippines three years ago this month, when President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the entire Luzon, home to over 50 million people, to stay home to curb the spread of the virus.

In recent weeks, health officials have since attested that the capital region, along with 38 other areas in the country, were ready to shift to Alert Level 1, after infections continued to fall and hospital admission eased.

The health department earlier said while the recent surge fueled by the Omicron variant brought with it the highest number of new infections in the pandemic so far, it also saw the lowest number of severe and critical cases. This was mostly due to increased protection from vaccines and the variant being less severe compared to other earlier forms of COVID-19.

Road ahead

Under Alert Level 1, establishments and public transportation are allowed to be fully operational. There are also no restrictions in place on the movement of people from different age groups, though this is subject to specific rules that may vary among local government units.

GUIDE: Alert Level 1 rules as Philippines enters 'new normal'

The government’s coronavirus task force set the bar for placing areas under Alert Level 1 by setting thresholds in the number of infections, hospital beds occupied, as well as vaccination coverage among the general population and vulnerable groups like the elderly. While risks for the virus must be kept low to minimal, less than half of an area’s hospital beds should be filled and at least 70% of the target population and 80% of senior citizens must be fully vaccinated.

Some experts have cautioned that vaccination thresholds, in particular, were too low to protect health systems against the possibility of a future surge in cases.

The uptake of boosters – which the government admitted has so far been slow – is not included among metrics considered to shift alert levels in areas. Aiming to vaccinate just 80% of the elderly would likewise still see about 1.8 million people at risk nationwide, cautioned epidemiologist Dr. John Wong of the public health research firm EpiMetrics.

“It (restrictions) depends on what degree of security you want. What level of deaths is ‘acceptable’ to society and the government,” Wong said.

In a press briefing on Monday, February 28, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire stressed that while the government, through Alert Level 1, wanted to usher in a “new normal,” the pandemic was not yet over.

Experts guiding the government’s pandemic response said the public should also be ready to see restrictions tighten in case infections climb and hospitals come under strain once more.

“Right now, we have deescalated to Alert Level 1, but we are keeping our safeguards so that we still have those protections in case we will see an increase in cases again because the virus is still circulating among us,” Vergeire said in a mix of Filipino and English.

Despite this, Cabinet officials part of Duterte’s economic cluster expressed optimism that a “new normal” scenario could finally accelerate the “full recovery” of the economy which has suffered its worst drop since the end of World War II.

After losing P3.8 trillion due to the pandemic, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua estimated that if the entire Philippines would be placed under Alert Level 1, some P16.5 billion worth of economic activity could be seen per week, while 297,000 less Filipinos would be unemployed. – Rappler.com

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