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IATF recommended optional face mask use outdoors, says Palace

The Inter-Agency Task Force of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has recommended the voluntary wearing of face masks in open spaces by year-end amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Malacañang said Wednesday.

In a hybrid press briefing, Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles said the IATF’s recommendation is to make optional the wearing of face mask in open spaces or non-crowded outdoor areas with good ventilation, provided that the COVID-19 booster uptake in the country improves.

“Doon sa IATF, ang kanilang rekomendasyon ay pag-liberalize ng ating mask wearing mandate and make mask wearing outdoors voluntary across the country,” said Cruz-Angeles, who was in Singapore, via video conference.

(IATF's recommendation is to liberalize our mask wearing mandate and make mask wearing outdoors voluntary across the country.)

Cruz-Angeles stressed that this is not yet a policy, but the pilot testing of the optional face mask use will be conducted towards the end of the year.

"Ang tuluyan na lifting ng mandatory mask mandate ay ipi-pilot towards the last quarter of 2022, provided na may improvement doon sa COVID booster vaccination coverage," she said.

(The lifting of the mandatory mask mandate will be piloted towards the last quarter of 2022, provided there is an improvement in the COVID-19 booster vaccination coverage.)

Senior citizens and immunocompromised individuals are, however, still highly encouraged to continue wearing face masks, she added.

'Verbally approved' by Marcos

Department of Health (DOH) officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire confirmed that the IATF made the recommendation, saying that President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has already “verbally approved” it.

"There is a verbal approval from the President when they talk to Secretary Benhur from DILG," she said, referring to the Secretary Benhur Abalos of the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

Vergeire said Marcos’ executive order on the matter may be released “immediately,” but he has not given a timeline as to when exactly.

“Everything is being prepared. Nakipag-usap na rin naman po tayo. We’ll just wait for the issuance. But definitely, and we think based from the feedback, talagang pabor naman ang Presidente, so the executive order can be issued immediately,” she said.

Pilot implementation

Vergeire also said that the lifting of the mask mandate should be done in phases in selected areas in the country to ensure that the population is still protected against COVID-19.

"Ang gagawin po natin, tayo ay kumakalap na ng iba’t ibang ebidensya. Gumagawa na rin tayo ng concept paper kung saan 'yung study kung paano natin gagawin ‘yung pagpa-pilot. When you say 'pilot,' we are going to implement this kind of implementation sa piling lugar sa ating bansa para makita natin kung kakayanin na ng ating sistema or hindi," she said.

(We are gathering evidence. We are also working on a concept paper where we study how we will do the piloting. When you say 'pilot,' we are going to implement this in selected areas in our country so we can see if our system can handle it or not.)

Vergeire also said that part of the IATF's recommendation is the call for the government agencies to help implement policies and interventions that could encourage the public to have their first booster shot.

Expert opposes policy

Meanwhile, Dr. Maricar Limpin of the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) said it might be too early for the Philippines to implement the recommendation, citing the low COVID-19  vaccine and booster shot uptake.

“Sana i-[reconsider] ito ng gobyerno dahil ang baba pa ng vaccination rate natin, lalo na ang booster. Lalong mahirap itaas ‘yung antas ng pagbibigay ng protection kasi biruin mo mababa na ang booster rate mo, ia-alis mo pa roon ang isa pang level of protection. Kawawa naman ang karamihan ng mga Pilipino na magkakaroon ng COVID-19,” Limpin said in an interview on dzBB’s Super Radyo.

(I hope the government will reconsider because our vaccination rate is very low, especially our booster vaccine turnout. It would be harder to uplift the quality of protection if you strip another level of protection while the booster rate is low. It would be a pitiful scenario for Filipinos who will contract COVID-19.)

“This is not really not the right time to do this. Mas gusto sana namin na ang pinakahuling ire-relax pagdating sa requirements ay ang pag-aalis ng face masks,” she added.

(This is not really not the right time to do this. We’re hoping that making masks optional will be the last to be relaxed among minimum public health protocols.)

Instead of lifting masks outdoors, Limpin said, the government should push for a “comprehensive” campaign to communicate to Filipinos the importance of availing the free coronavirus shots and booster doses.

“Kailangan siguro mayroon tayong magandang communication strategy para ma-encourage ang mga tao na magpabakuna. At ang mga concerns nila na nire-raise ay kailangan ma-explain natin sa tao. ‘Yung mga agam-agam sa pagbabakuna kailangan umalis para mag-increase ang pagbabakuna and then of course, siguraduhin na may bakuna pag pumunta ang mga tao,” she said.

(Maybe we need a good communication strategy to encourage the public to get vaccinated. We should answer their concerns to remove their doubts and increase the vaccination rate. And of course, vaccines should be available once they go to the inoculation centers.)

Based on the DOH's national COVID-19 vaccination dashboard, only 18.1 million of the 72.6 million fully vaccinated Filipinos have received their booster shots.

Senators weigh in on development

Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Joseph Victor Ejercito welcomed the IATF recommendation.

"Since it is the recommendation of the IATF, then it means that it’s already safe to go outside without wearing face masks. As long as we are fully vaccinated, there might be no need to wear face masks outdoors," Estrada said in a statement.

"Yes, I agree [with the IATF].  I believe we only need to wear masks indoors or if there is a big crowd, so it's up to every individual’s discussion," Ejercito said.

But for Senator Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa, he would remain cautious.

"They [IATF] are more knowledgeable on these things. They  have studied it, but personally, ayoko pa. Takot pa rin ako. Magma-mask pa rin ako," dela Rosa said in a separate interview.

(I don't want to forego wearing a face mask just yet. I'm still afraid of the virus. I will still wear a face mask.)

The IATF reconvened on Monday to discuss recommendations on the face mask policy that will be presented to the Office of the President.

This came after the Cebu City government issued an executive order making face mask use optional in open spaces in the city.  — with Llanesca T. Panti and Sundy Locus/KBK/RSJ/BM, GMA News