Filipinos finally see a glimmer of hope in COVID-19 situation in 2021

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The COVID-19 situation in the Philippines does not seem so grim anymore as 2021 comes to a close, with daily new coronavirus infections hovering around the hundreds instead of tens of thousands recorded earlier this year. More and more adults and children are also getting vaccinated, and there is no more shortage of vaccines.

The country overcame the challenge of vaccine supplies and surges driven by mutating coronavirus variants, but it is not yet out of the woods as another variant threatens the country’s improving COVID-19 situation.

CNN Philippines looks back at the rollercoaster ride that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vaccination roadblocks and respite

The country received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines in late February, paving the way for the mass COVID-19 immunization to finally begin in March — three months after the United States, a first-world country, rolled out its vaccination program.

Vaccines were only initially available to vulnerable sectors, with healthcare workers as the top priority because of supply woes due to unequal distribution between rich and developing nations.

Aside from global issues, bureaucracy in the country also hampered efforts to immunize Filipinos as early as January.

Two Cabinet members, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, got into a word war this year after Locsin hinted that the latter was remiss in his duties to ensure Filipinos are vaccinated as early as possible.

Late last year, Locsin said the country was supposed to have received Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines as early as January had Duque not “dropped the ball” in securing the prized shots. In December, the now-infamous phrase resurfaced on Locsin’s Twitter account after he claimed Philippine officials missed the chance to procure 50 million syringes because of their refusal to even discuss the deal with the United States government.

Duque denied both accusations. He also chided Locsin for airing dirty laundry on social media instead of calling him directly.

Meanwhile, global initiative COVAX was expected to send the first batch of donated Pfizer shots to the Philippines in mid-February, but the absence of a law that indemnifies manufacturers from liability if something inadvertently goes wrong with their vaccines led to a delivery delay. On Feb. 26, President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a bill that seeks to provide compensation for death and permanent disability linked to COVID-19 vaccines. The country finally received its first batch of COVAX-donated doses in May.

Every time a plane arrived carrying vaccine shipment, whether it was procured by the government or donated by wealthier nations, Philippine officials welcomed it as it signals a step closer to reaching herd immunity for a better kind of new normal.

Vaccine supply began to stabilize around October, prompting the government to expand the COVID-19 vaccination program to the general population, including adolescents.

The COVID-19 vaccination program expanded further in December — with the approval of booster shots for all adults — originally recommended for healthcare workers, senior citizens, and people with comorbidities alone.

The country’s experts have said booster shots and third doses were allowed due to the concerns that the vaccines’ effectiveness diminishes over time.

Amid the threat of new variants and expected increase in exposure to coronavirus from face-to-face gatherings, the DOH urged the public to get a booster as early as three to six months after completing their primary vaccine series.

Despite the steady supply and expanded rollout, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. admitted that distribution remains a challenge.

Millions of vaccines remain unused in storage areas due to logistical bottlenecks, slow inoculation pace, and vaccine hesitancy. Natural calamities, such as earthquakes and typhoons, also affect vaccination operations.

Government data as of Dec. 20 showed 44.2 million people in the country have been fully vaccinated. The government only has a few more days to reach its adjusted target of completing the vaccination of 54 million Filipinos by the end of 2021.

The government’s ultimate target is to inoculate up to 90% of the country’s population.

Galvez earlier vowed provinces will get a fair share of the incoming vaccines following the requests from local officials. Earlier, the government prioritized sending the bulk of limited vaccines to the most densely populated areas, with Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire saying the country would attain herd immunity faster this way.

The country is close to receiving 200 million vaccine doses. It has so far received 192,344,945 doses as of Dec. 21; the number continues to go up as more deliveries are expected to be made before yearend.

Variant-driven case surges

As the country dealt with vaccine supply issues, it also battled at least two surges in COVID-19 cases triggered by three variants of concern.

Metro Manila – the epicenter of the local coronavirus outbreak — and nearby areas were the first ones to take the hit in late March to April. The huge uptick in infections in Metro Manila, Rizal, Bulacan, Cavite, and Laguna led to overstretched hospitals, prompting officials to revert to the strictest enhanced community quarantine.

Once cases decreased in NCR Plus in May, the Department of Health reported gradual and sustained increases in new infections all over Visayas and Mindanao.

In the same month, the DOH reported the first two cases of Delta variant in the country. It was later found through retrospective sampling that Delta was already present in the country as early as March 31. The department confirmed the local transmission of this feared variant in July.

The country's health experts said the Delta variant caused the record spikes in COVID-19 cases in August and September — as high as over 20,000 new infections recorded daily. It prompted government officials to implement the most stringent measures to slow its spread. More vaccines were also deployed to areas experiencing surges.

COVID-19 watchdog OCTA Research began seeing improvements in the pandemic situation due to the Delta-driven case surge around November. The number continues to improve as the year closes.

The lowest number of new cases this year was recorded on Dec. 19 with only 203 new infections. However, it excluded data from 45 laboratories affected by Typhoon Odette.

Just as cases are dropping and hospital congestion is easing, a new variant of concern called Omicron emerged, triggering travel restrictions here and abroad.

The World Health Organization has said it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more easily spread or if it causes more severe disease than other variants of concern. But preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron, it added.

The country reported its first three imported Omicron cases. DOH assured they pose minimal risk to communities since they were isolated upon entry in the country.

What to expect in 2022

The government is in talks with vaccine manufacturers to purchase at least 90 million vaccine doses needed in 2022. These will mostly be used as booster shots. Officials said around 70 million doses procured in 2021 will be used for the primary vaccine series next year.

The national government is also targeting to fully vaccinate about 90 million Filipinos before President Rodrigo Duterte steps down in 2022, according to Duque. Amid the Delta variant-driven surge in September, the government increased the herd immunity target to 90% from 70%.

The Food and Drug Administration is also expected to approve the COVID-19 vaccination of young kids aged 5 to 12 years old and booster shots for older children aged 12 to 17.

The 2022 elections will see a transition in leadership as a new president, vice president, and lawmakers will lead the nation beginning June 30. It could also spell change in COVID-19 response efforts.