Galvez: PH to declare Alert Level 0 once WHO says pandemic is over

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 11)— The government will only consider placing the entire country under Alert Level 0—in other words, removing all alerts—once the World Health Organization (WHO) lifts the state of COVID-19 pandemic, a top official said Friday.

In an interview, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said it is still “too early” to talk about a lower risk classification system, noting the possible tendency for people to be complacent.

“Alert level Zero will be declared once WHO declared the pandemic is over,” Galvez said.

“[W]e cannot talk (about) that yet kasi magiging complacent tao (people will be complacent),” he added. “We will wait for the advice of WHO if WHO will lift pandemic status ng global conditions of being endemic.”

Health Secretary Francisco Duque earlier bared the government and experts are looking into the possibility of an Alert Level 0, citing the improving COVID-19 situation in the country despite the recent imposition of a more relaxed Alert Level 1.

Galvez, however, is not counting out the possibility of another coronavirus surge or variant coming in.

In a separate briefing, Interior Undersecretary Epimaco Densing echoed Galvez’ sentiments, saying authorities will likely look at the matter once COVID-19 is declared an endemic.

"Ang nakikita natin dito base sa mga datos na nakikita natin noong nakaraang linggo, ang numero ng kaso ng COVID in terms of percentage ay halos pareho na rin sa percentage ng nagkakaroon ng ordinary flu. Ang isang importanteng mangyari ay kailangang ma-deklare na endemya na itong COVID-19," he said in the government-led Laging Handa briefing.

[Translation: We see that based on the data from the past few weeks is that the percentage of COVID cases versus the percentage of flu cases is almost the same. What's important is for COVID-19 to be declared an endemic.]

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, described endemic as the disease circulating at a lower, steady, and more predictable rate — just like the seasonal influenza — in a particular region.

Is PH ready for eased restrictions?

Densing said some areas are not yet even ready to ease from Alert Level 2 to 1 despite decreasing coronavirus infections and low hospital utilization rate because they have not yet vaccinated 70% of their eligible population or the elderly.

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Rontgene Solante agreed that the country "looks ready" for Alert Level 0 if only the cases and hospitalization rate are considered. However, the IATF includes the vaccination rate in its metrics for the alert level system.

The health expert, who is also part of the government's Vaccine Experts Panel, said Filipinos must continue to wear face masks even if the other restrictions are lifted.

"Since we know the Omicron is still in the community and mataas pa rin ang hawaan, ang important factor there, ang vaccination natin hindi pa umabot ng 90% then we presume that retaining these protocols — face mask, handwashing — should be important component of Alert Level 0," he said in the same briefing.

[Translation: Since we know the Omicron is still in the community and there is still high community transmission, the important factor there is our vaccination rate has not yet reached 90%, then we presume that retaining the face masks and handwashing should stay as important components of Alert Level 0.]

What will likely change?

Densing said that presenting vaccination cards will most likely no longer be required in entering establishments under Alert Level 0. This is one of the remaining requirements under Alert Level 1.

He added the National Task Force Against COVID-19 may stop operations as the responsibility of managing the endemic will fall on the shoulders of the local government units.