The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is not yet over. While cases are slowly trending downward, the highly transmissible Omicron subvariants are still around. Fortunately, total and ICU (intensive care unit) bed utilization rates for COVID-19 at both the national and regional levels remain at low risk, according to the Department of Health (DoH).
“With a continuous rise in COVID-19 cases, the DoH reminds the general public to remain vigilant and adhere to our minimum public health standards such as wearing the best-fitting masks, social distancing, and immediate isolation at the onset of symptoms. We also encourage the eligible population to get vaccinated and boosted with our COVID-19 vaccines to continue building a strong wall of immunity against the virus,” said Health officer-in-charge Maria Rosario S. Vergeire.
As of this August, the DoH, working with local government units and private sector partners, has administered more than 160 million total doses through the Bayanihan Bakunahan (National Vaccination Days) and Resbakuna Kids campaigns. At least 71 million Filipinos have completed the primary vaccination series, with over 15 million Filipinos having at least one booster dose, which represents roughly 21% of the fully vaccinated population.
To increase vaccination coverage, the National Government launched this July a campaign dubbed “Sa Boosters: PinasLakas.” The initiative aims to fully vaccinate 90% of A2 or senior citizen population (1,074,110 recipients), as well as increase booster dose coverage to 50% of the total target population (23,840,032 recipients) before Oct. 8, which marks the first 100 days of the Marcos administration.
As of this August, more than 18,900 PinasLakas vaccination sites have been launched nationwide, in areas such as markets, schools, workplaces, health facilities, terminals/transport hubs, places of worship, and mobile vaccination sites. All vaccines being freely given in the country have been rigorously studied and deemed safe and effective by experts. Only a small percentage of doses administered had reactions, most of which were mild and resolved spontaneously.
Staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines including boosters will enable us to enjoy tremendous benefits. As more and more Filipinos complete their primary doses and their booster shots, the more the country can ease its health requirements, live and work free from worry of alert level restrictions, resume face-to-face learning in schools, and avoid the expenses associated with COVID-19 hospitalization and its complications.
Key sectors of our society will be able to reap their own benefits as well. Keeping the number of COVID-19 cases low and manageable will unburden the country’s healthcare facilities and healthcare workers. Government spending can be redirected towards other social services and priorities. The national and local government will be able to fulfill their mandate and highlight their success in ensuring the protection of the people.
With COVID-19 cases under control, the country will be able to keep the economy open and allow it to further generate income and drive progress and prosperity. Schools can remain open, and thus can maximize our children’s literacy and educational outcomes. Tourism will remain open and busy, generating jobs and supporting businesses.
An SWS survey conducted in December 2021 indicated that 80% of fully vaccinated Filipinos are willing to get a booster dose. To further drive accurate information for the public for the “homeliners,” the DoH made available a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence (AI). Called KIRA or “Katuwang na Impormasyon para sa Responsableng Aksyon,” it can be found on the DoH Facebook page, Viber, and KontraCOVID PH web app.
KIRA can be used to self-check if one is at risk of COVID-19; it can also answer commonly asked questions. The chatbot, a partnership between startup AI4GOV and the DoH Health Promotions Bureau under OIC-Undersecretary Dr. Beverly Lorraine C. Ho, was one of the winners at the inaugural World Health Organization Western Pacific Innovation Challenge.
The KIRA chatbot initiative is gaining momentum with 33.5 million interactions, and 1.2 million users who have inquiries related to COVID-19. With this digital tool, people can get answers and combat fake information and misinformation.
Eligible Filipinos are strongly urged to stay up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines series and booster shots, so that together we can enjoy the benefits of continued recovery from the pandemic.
Teodoro B. Padilla is the executive director of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), which represents the biopharmaceutical medicines and vaccines industry in the country. Its members are at the forefront of research and development efforts for COVID-19 and other diseases that affect Filipinos.