Tighter rules for travelers from virus hotspots sought

THE PHILIPPINE government should enforce more travel restrictions on inbound travelers from countries with an alarming coronavirus situation, including China, which has been accused of hiding its pandemic data, according to health experts.

“The Philippines should enforce travel restrictions and add requirements from travelers, but not just those coming from China but also those from other countries that are experiencing a surge,” Gene A. Nisperos, a board member of the Community Medicine Development Foundation, Inc. said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

He said the government might have to review its mask mandate after making it voluntary except in public transportation and medical facilities.

“Mask wearing is the basic minimum so we may need to review policies on masking,” he said. “Testing also needs to be more readily available and free.”

“Ensuring better conditions in public places like having air filters or better air flow is needed to make the country safer,” Mr. Nisperos said. “Broader vaccine coverage is another measure.”

The government should also improve its coronavirus surveillance and data management, he said, noting that the Philippine health system would be “pushed to its limits if we have another surge in severe COVID cases.”

The Philippines plans to welcome more tourists from China, which is expected to further ease restrictions on inbound and outbound travel in a move that will put its battered economy on course for a complete reopening this year.

Due to domestic pressure, China has begun dismantling its zero-COVID-19 strategy since December after it was faulted for its economic downturn.

Meanwhile, the United States, the world’s largest economy, is now confronting threats from the XBB.1.5 super variant, which has accounted for more than 40% of its cases.

The US, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Italy have imposed coronavirus tests for passengers arriving from China, which has been accused of not being transparent with its pandemic data.

At a recent meeting with Chinese officials, World Health Organizations officials asked Beijing to “formulate accurate risk assessments and to inform [them of] effective response,” according to a report by The Guardian.

There are worries that China might not be sharing data on new virus strains, which could lead to fresh outbreaks across the world. Chinese authorities have said the current outbreak is driven by versions of the Omicron variant, which has also been detected in the Philippines.

Beijing has always been “publishing information on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) deaths and severe cases in the spirit of openness and transparency,” a top health chief said at a press briefing held by China’s state council, based on a report by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

“I feel testing mechanisms should still be in place as a prerequisite to arrival in the Philippines, especially during holidays when there is greater inbound and outbound travel,” Joey Francis Hernandez, an official of the Philippine Society of Public Health Physicians, said in a Messenger chat.

“But we have grown to push COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing out of the picture. It happened since most countries have lifted testing requirements for COVID,” he said.

Rontgene M. Solante, a member of the Health department’s technical advisory group, said travel restrictions on Chinese travelers is not scientific.

“The requirement of the US for a test-negative Chinese traveler is more of a political decision and not anchored much on science,” he said in a Messenger chat. “It is more a speculation that the new variant is driving the increase in cases.”

“They knew the limitations of an RT-PCR negative as a requirement for travelers entering the US,” he added. “It’s more about sending a message to China to give accurate data and the status of their COVID surge.”

“No country will always be ready for a new surge,” Mr. Solante said. “But we can more or less mitigate those events in the future.”

He urged the Philippine government to vaccinate more people with a focus on vulnerable sectors and aim for the availability vaccines that are effective against future strains.

The government should make antiviral agents accessible and readily available, he added.

Mr. Solante, an infectious disease expert, also called on the government to boost its surveillance and hold regular genome sequencing to ensure that new variants are being monitored.

“For next year, we will continue to be threatened by COVID-19 because of the possible emergence of new variants and waning population immunity,” Mr. Solante said.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. should urge Congress to fast-track the passage of a bill that would create a Center for Disease Control and Prevention, he added.

“Learning to live with the coronavirus entails concrete policies and plans to make us resilient against any potential surge.” — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza