By Patricia Mirasol 

Data suggests that most Omicron cases will be mild, thus eliminating the need for stringent lockdowns, a science expert said. However, the country will still need to brace for the next month as the Omicron wave passes, and individuals will still need to be responsible for their personal health.

“If you are vaccinated and boosted, you should not be terrified. You should be prudent,” said Fr. Nicanor R. Austriaco, Jr., a Catholic priest, molecular biologist, and research fellow of OCTA Research, a private polling, research, and consultation firm. He added that the fear surrounding Omicron — though understandable — is unjustified, given the mildness of the latest COVID-19 variant of concern.

It causes milder disease because, although it is able to infect the nose and throat of patients more efficiently, it struggles to infect their lungs, Fr. Austriaco said in a Jan. 5 town hall discussion by GoNegosyo, a non-profit that advocates for entrepreneurship in the Philippines. Severe disease occurs in the lungs.

“Also, more people are vaccinated and boosted now as compared to the past,” added Fr. Austriaco. “It’s milder — but if you’re unvaccinated, it’s still harder for you.”

Omicron was first identified by a team of Botswanan scientists in November. According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Omicron “has not put the kind of pressure on the South African healthcare system” as did the Delta variant in South Africa, India, and other countries. There are more cases than hospital admissions observed in South Africa’s Omicron surge.

A study published by The University of Edinburgh on Dec. 22, moreover, suggests that Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization as compared to Delta.

“Omicron is the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” Fr. Austriaco told the participants of the town hall discussion. “We [need to] live our full lives,” he said, even as he emphasized the necessity to take responsibility for one’s own health and to be careful still.

As the country moves from a COVID pandemic to endemic disease, the two main goals are: 1.) not to breach the red zone (or going past the 70% mark) of healthcare capacity, and, 2.) to protect the vulnerable (including the elderly and the unvaccinated), said Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III.

“I would like to remind everyone of our shared responsibilities this pandemic,” he said at the same event. “For those vaccinated, remember that vaccination is not complete without adherence to the minimum public health standards. Mag-asawa ’yan (They go together).”

Dr. Duque said the decrease in the number of cases during last year’s Delta surge was due to the tandem of mass inoculation drives and public adherence to the aforementioned standards.

“The virus mutates in an unvaccinated population,” he added.

The World Health Organization reports that COVID-19 vaccines are still an effective protection against severe disease from the current virus variants.

In the town hall discussion, Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chairman Benjamin de Castro Abalos, Jr. shared the latest Omicron statistics.

“The occupancy rate in isolation facilities managed by local government units is 34.15% as of Jan. 1, up from 4.73% on Dec. 1,” he said. The growth of cases also increased from -51% from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18, to +501% from Dec. 5 to Jan. 1.

The MMDA, through Resolution No. 22-01, series of 2022, restricts the movement of unvaccinated individuals in the National Capital Region, after the region was placed under the Alert Level 3 because of the post-holiday resurgence of cases.

“It’s as if the unvaccinated are on ECQ [the strictest lockdown classification from last year],” said Mr. Abalos.

He added that the temporary restrictions are for the benefit of the unprotected.

“Imagine all these variants coming in and you’re still not vaccinated,” he said. “That’s where we’re coming from right now.”