MANILA, Philippines — The government might have to prioritize the inoculation of residents in Metro Manila and other key areas that will help the country’s economy recover sooner while the government struggles to get more COVID-19 vaccines for the entire nation, according to Carlito Galvez Jr., the official in charge of the national vaccination program.
The government previously was aiming to inoculate 70 percent of the country’s 110 million population to achieve herd immunity, but the lack of vaccines required a tweaking to achieve a “more realistic target,” Galvez said during President Rodrigo Duterte’s weekly television address on Monday night.
“Considering that we would have a falloff or shortfall in our supplies, we are recommending that we have prioritization, meaning, we will look at the areas that have economic and social importance,” said Galvez, who is also chief implementer of the National Task Force Against COVID-19.
These areas, especially the National Capital Region (NCR), are “places where we will have a problem if we can’t act quickly” to stop the surge in cases, he said.
Aside from Metro Manila, Galvez recommended concentrating the vaccination drive in areas hardest hit by the pandemic.
They include Calabarzon, Central Luzon, Baguio City, Cordillera Administrative Region and Cagayan Valley in Luzon; Cebu City, Bacolod City, Iloilo City, Western Visayas, Central Visayas, Eastern Visayas, and other places in the Visayas with a high number of active cases; Davao City, Cagayan de Oro City, Zamboanga City, General Santos City, Iligan City, Zamboanga Peninsula, Northern Mindanao and Davao Region in Mindanao.
In all, the population in these areas total around 83 million, Galvez said.
“If we get 70 percent or herd immunity in these areas, there is a big chance for our economy to recover, and there is also a big chance that we will prevent surges in these traditional areas that are very vulnerable,” he said.
The President has not approved his recommendation.
“What we’ll be doing is that we will have a realistic target of having a range of 50 to 70 million [vaccine recipients]. So in order to really get the same effect (herd immunity), we will get the strategic areas with the highest infections and at the same time have the highest economic and social impact,” he explained.
Galvez said the 30 million shots the country ordered from India, the world’s largest vaccine maker facing a record-breaking surge in cases, might be delayed because the Indian government wanted its locally made vaccines for its own people.
Coming to terms
Business groups are also coming to terms with the vaccine shortage, but do not believe that mandatory vaccination for workers would be feasible, according to Sergio Ortiz-Luis Jr., president of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines.
Ortiz-Luis said that aside from the sheer lack of vaccines there was also the legal question of whether a person could be forced to get vaccinated.
What is important is the public’s confidence in the vaccine brand and the schedule, he said during Tuesday’s Laging Handa briefing.
Joey Concepcion, presidential adviser for entrepreneurship, said legislating mandatory vaccination should only be a last resort.
“If we fail in reeling this campaign to convince our workers to get the vaccine … if the national government sees the [vaccination rates are] really low, we will support it because if we don’t, we [can’t] reach herd immunity,” he said.
Galvez said simulations showed that herd immunity could be reached in NCR and the six provinces around it by November, or after a 180-day vaccination drive with 120,000 doses administered daily.
For the rest of the country, it will take about 213 days, with fewer daily jabs.
He said the national target for daily vaccination would still be 500,000 shots per day after the country’s vaccine supplies start to increase by the third quarter.
Galvez said 4,040,600 vaccine doses had been delivered to the Philippines as of May 2.
He said 1,658,539 million Filipinos have received 1,948,080 million shots, including around 289,000 who got their second dose.
To ensure that the country would have a steady or buffer supply, Galvez said his team is negotiating with suppliers to increase the number of doses the government had procured.
China’s Sinovac will be shipping 1.5 million doses instead of just 500,000 on May 7 and Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute is being asked to deliver 2 million doses monthly of its Sputnik V vaccine, Galvez said.
Talks are also ongoing with the COVAX facility and the World Health Organization (WHO) for the delivery of AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines totaling 2.3 million doses, he added.
Dr. Tony Leachon, a former adviser to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, said the Philippines and other countries were in a tight fix following the “mega surge” of cases in India.
“We have reached a Catch-22 situation,” he added. “Damn if you do—our people can’t have the better vaccines for one year. Damn if you don’t—if there is not enough vaccines, we will develop more variants here which may be much harder to control later on.”
But a “50 to 70” percent target still falls within the WHO’s recommendation, he said.
Lowest since March 18
Infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante said “downgrading our expectation” of the number of people to be inoculated and realigning vaccine supply to high-risk areas would be a key “strategy.”
He said “it will be difficult to achieve herd immunity” with the lower target population, but at the very least, it would “decrease hospitalization and mortality” of vulnerable people.
The Department of Health (DOH) on Tuesday recorded 5,683 new COVID-19 cases, raising the country’s total case count to 1,067,892.
It was the lowest number since 5,290 cases were reported on March 18, but the DOH noted that 21 laboratories failed to submit their data in time for Tuesday’s report.
It said 9,028 patients had recovered, bringing the number of survivors to 984,210. The deaths of 97 others pushed the fatality count to 17,622.
The deaths and recoveries left 66,060 active cases. Majority or 94.6 percent are mild, 1.7 percent asymptomatic, 1.2 percent critical, 1.5 percent severe and 0.98 percent moderate.
—WITH REPORTS FROM MARICAR CINCO, PATRICIA DENISE M. CHIU AND ROY STEPHEN C. CANIVEL
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