UNSPLASH

THE PHILIPPINES has detected one more infection involving the highly contagious Omicron subvariant BQ.1, bringing the total to 17, the Health department said on Tuesday.

The patient came from the Western Visayas region, it said in a bulletin.

The European Center for Disease Control considers BQ.1, a sublineage of Omicron BA.5, a variant of interest.

The subvariant, which is said to be more contagious and can evade antibodies, has been driving up coronavirus infections in the US, UK and parts of Europe.

The Philippines also detected 60 more infections involving the Omicron subvariant BA.2.3.20, 42 XBB, two BA.5 and six more Omicron sublineages. The Department of Health (DoH) also detected two new cases of XBC, a recombinant of Delta and Omicron.

The test results came from the sequencing conducted by University of the Philippines-Philippine Genome Center on Nov. 28 to Dec. 3, the agency said.

Health authorities detected the first 14 cases of BQ.1 on Nov. 25.

The Philippines posted 7,731 coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections in the past week with a daily average of 1,104, DoH said on Monday.

The national daily average on Nov. 28 to Dec. 4 was 4% lower than a week earlier, it said. Of the new cases, two were severe and critical, it added.

DoH said 134 new deaths were verified in the past week, 19 of which occurred on Nov. 21 to Dec. 4.

The agency said 534 or 22.1% of 2,413 intensive care unit (ICU) beds had been used as of Dec. 4, while 5,177 or 25.3% of 20,452 non-ICU beds were occupied. There were 595 severe and critical admissions, it added.

Meanwhile, DoH said it plans to vaccinate at least 60% of kids aged five to 11 years to prevent surges in coronavirus infections.

At a livestreamed press briefing, Health Officer-in-Charge Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said 49% of the age group had been vaccinated against the virus.

“Parents of children in this age group are still hesitant because of misinformation and disinformation about vaccines,” she said. “We will continue informing parents that vaccines are effective in protecting children against the virus, especially as they go back to school next year.”

The DoH will end its three-day vaccination drive for children on Dec. 7.

Philippine health authorities expect a spike in coronavirus infections during the holidays in the absence of restrictions.

Daily infections could hit 1,114 to 2,294 by the end of December, while active cases could reach 18,000, DoH Epidemiology Bureau director Alethea R. de Guzman said last week, citing increased mobility, social gatherings and eased restrictions.

She said existing vaccines could help minimize hospitalizations even after new variants enter the country.

Edsel Maurice T. Salvaña, a member of DoH’s technical advisory group, has said coronavirus deaths would remain low as long as vaccination and boosting rates were pushed.

He added that using face masks could still prevent outbreaks, decrease cases and protect people from other respiratory illnesses.

The Philippines has fully vaccinated 73.63 million people, according to the DoH bulletin. It added that 20.94 million people have received booster shots.

Cases of COVID-19 were first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The Philippines posted its first COVID-19 case on Jan. 30, more than a week after a Chinese who tested positive for the virus arrived in the country.

Youngsters in China have been holding protests against their government’s “Zero-COVID” policy that forced millions of people to stay at home. Critics have described the policy, which was also blamed for the country’s economic woes, as “draconian.”

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that the Chinese government was easing some of its stringent anti-COVID-19 rules, with authorities saying that new variants are weaker.

But the country has yet to say when it will end the zero-COVID policy. — Norman P. Aquino and J.V.D. Ordoñez