By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter   

A DECREASE in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases all over the world has made it safer for the Philippines to lift the masking mandate. Individuals must now make conscious choices about wearing masks (or not) by assessing the risk in every situation, said health experts.  

“The wearing of your mask is an informed choice. Since it’s now voluntary, you need to empower yourself to assess the risk for every activity you’re going to do and every place you’re going to visit,” said Dr. Marissa M. Alejandria, director of the Institute of Clinical Epidemiology at University of the Philippines (UP) Manila, at a Nov. 11 webinar.  

According to the ¾ rule, individuals who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, physically distanced, and in an outdoor or ventilated space can forgo masking.   

“We still highly recommend everyone to continue masking as it is a simple, practical, and effective way to prevent the transmission of COVID-19,” she said.  

On Friday, the Philippines posted 1,227 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 4.01 million. Of these, only 17,188 are still active.  

BA.5, the predominant variant under Omicron, currently has descendants like XBB, XBC, and BQ.1, whose emergence prove that transmission of the virus is still ongoing.   

Dr. Alejandria reminded that masking has two roles: it is a source control that blocks the wearer from emitting droplets, and a filter that keeps the wearer from inhaling droplets.  

“The benefit increases with increasing numbers of people using masks correctly and consistently,” she said. “There is both a community benefit and an individual benefit.”  

Maria Rosario S. Vergeire, officer-in-charge of the Department of Health (DoH), reiterated in a media briefing on Friday that the public should always make informed decisions to prevent transmission of the virus, regardless of what the restrictions are.  

In November, the Philippine Pediatric Society and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society of the Philippines released a statement saying that masking, alongside ventilation and distancing, remain vital in preventing COVID-19 transmission in schools.  

The primary vaccination rate in the Philippines is about 70%, but the booster coverage is under 50%, which adds to the importance of masking as a precautionary measure, said Dr. Alejandria.  

Face masks are also effective in protecting people from other respiratory infections, according to Dr. Ralph Elvi Villalobos, consultant at the division of pulmonary medicine at UP Philippine General Hospital.  

“Aside from COVID-19, using face masks can protect from other respiratory infectious illnesses like influenza and pneumonia,” he said. “It will also help patients who have to deal with air pollution, asthma, and emphysema triggers.”