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Vergeire: COVID-19 cases may soar at 18K daily in Nov-Dec if face masks are removed

The new COVID-19 infections in the country may go as high as 18,000 daily in November or December if people discontinue wearing their face masks, Department of Health (DOH) officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said Thursday.

Vergeire said the DOH presented such a possible scenario during a meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) last week where it was decided that the wearing of face masks in indoor areas will be made voluntary.

“Sinasabi sa projections na towards November and December of this year, kung magtatanggal tayo ng masks, maaaring tumaas ang kaso natin from 2,500 at the lower limit, to as high as 18,000,” she said in a radio interview.

(According to our projections, our cases may increase from 2,500 at the lower limit to as high as 18,000 towards November and December of this year, if we remove our masks.)

Infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante on Wednesday also warned of a possible increase in COVID-19 cases once the country shifts to voluntary wearing of face masks indoors, especially with the recent detection of the Omicron XBB subvariant and XBC variant.

In a separate interview with CNN Philippines, Vergeire said the Health Department initially recommended to the IATF for the optional masking indoors be implemented first in areas where the booster uptake is high and the system is manageable. The National Capital Region was included in this proposal.

She, however, said the DOH was overruled by other agencies as the IATF is a collegial body.

“Our position was that we take it…parang slowly, that we still do a pilot first during this month of November so that we can see if kakayanin ng ating sistema [if our system could handle it]. But the other sectors, of course, have proposed that we do it nationwide already and it be done already,” she said.

Vergeire said COVID-19 infections are really expected to rise due to this development because the coronavirus is still here and is mutating.

She, however, stressed that what is important is that the severe and critical cases would be at the minimum level, and that hospital utilization would remain manageable.

The Health official also called on the public to weigh their risks before removing their masks indoors, considering the still-slow booster uptake in the country.

At least 20.4 million Filipinos out of the 73.4 million fully vaccinated individuals have received their booster shots, based on the DOH’s national COVID-19 vaccination dashboard.

“Sa ngayon, we highly encourage our citizens para tumanggap ng boosters, pero talagang napaka-slow ng uptake ngayon,” Vergeire said.

(Right now, we highly encourage our citizens to receive boosters, but the uptake is really very slow right now.)

“What we need to do really is to assess our risks kapag tayo ay lalabas o kaya ay pupunta sa indoor spaces. Kung sa tingin ninyo ay kakaunti lang ang tao o sa tingin ninyo, hindi naman kayo vulnerable, then very well, you can voluntarily remove your masks,” she added.

(What we really need to do is to assess our risks when we go out or go to indoor spaces. If you think that there are only a few people there or you think that you are not vulnerable, then very well, you can voluntarily remove your masks.)

She said there are 19,000 vaccination sites currently set up nationwide to ramp up the primary vaccine series and booster uptake among Filipinos. — RSJ, GMA News