By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporters

THE PHILIPPINES started immunizing its labor force against the coronavirus on Monday as government seeks to further reopen its economy after imposing one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte said the vaccination of essential workers in the private and public sectors is a “major milestone” in the fight against the pandemic.

“With the start of our mass vaccination, the A4 priority category — workers in both public and private sectors — will have an added layer of protection against the disease,” he said in a taped message during the symbolic vaccination of some workers near the capital.

The inoculation of private workers, government employees, and informal sectors workers is being carried out first in Metro Manila and other key economic hubs due to limited supply. Health authorities have said people aged 45 years and up would be prioritized.

“It is very important that we use the vaccines to reduce the deaths by prioritizing this group,” World Health Organization country representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe told a news briefing after the program, noting that people in this age group were likely to die once they get infected. 

The Philippines aims to inoculate at least 500,000 people daily in Metro Manila, Rizal, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao to achieve herd immunity by Nov. 27.

The Department of Health (DoH) reported 6,539 coronavirus infections on Monday, bringing the total to 1.28 million.

The death toll rose by 71 to 21,969, while recoveries increased by 6,969 to 1.2 million, it said in a bulletin.

There were 58,854 active cases, 1.3% of which were critical, 93.4% were mild, 2.4% did not show symptoms, 1.7% were severe and 1.16% were moderate.

It said 13 duplicates had been removed from the tally, 10 of which were tagged as recoveries. Twenty-one recoveries were reclassified as deaths. Seven laboratories failed to submit data on June 5, the agency said.

About 12.9 million Filipinos have been tested for the coronavirus as of June 4, according to DoH’s tracker website.

The coronavirus has sickened about 174.1 million and killed 3.7 million people worldwide, according to the Worldometers website, citing various sources including data from the World Health Organization.

About 157.1 million people have recovered, it said.

Meanwhile, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said mass gatherings remained prohibited.

“We urge the public to stay home and go out only when needed to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019),” she told an online news briefing, adding that local governments should enforce health protocols.

Vaccine czar Carlito G. Galvez, Jr. said the Philippine seeks to breach this week the six-million mark in its coronavirus vaccination program. The country would receive more than 10 million doses of coronavirus vaccines this month, he told a separate online news briefing.

The government would take delivery this month of about 100,000 more doses of Sputnik V vaccines from Russia and 5.5 million doses of CoronaVac from China, he said.

About 2.8 million doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer, Inc. and about 2 million doses of the vaccine made by AstraZeneca Plc, which were obtained under a global initiative for equal access, would also arrive this month.

About 250,000 doses of the vaccine made by Moderna, Inc. are also expected to arrive this month, he added.

Mr. Galvez said more than 5.9 million coronavirus vaccines have been given out as of Sunday, about 1.5 million of which were second shots.

The Philippines, which began its vaccination on March 1, aims to inoculate as many as 70 million Filipinos this year to achieve herd immunity.

About 22 million essential workers are expected to be vaccinated, the Department of Health (DoH) said.

The vaccination would be held in phases, Ms. Vergeire said, citing Mr. Galvez. The vaccination of so-called economic frontliners workers would start in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Rizal, Laguna, Pampanga, Batangas, Metro Cebu and Metro Davao, she said.

There were about 12 million people under the category in prioritized areas, she added.

Eligible workers include private sector workers who physically go to work, state employees including those who work in in government-owned and -controlled companies and local government units, informal sector and self-employed workers who physically report to work.

Under a DoH memo, workers aged 40 to 50 years old, then to 18 to 39 years old would be prioritized when vaccine supply is limited.

They will be simultaneously vaccinated alongside healthcare workers, senior citizens and seriously ill people.