By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE GOVERNMENT will boost vaccination efforts amid rising coronavirus infections in the Philippines, President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. said on Sunday.

“We will have to conduct again, especially for young people, a vaccination push,” he told reporters aboard a plane on his way to Washington, based on a transcript from the presidential palace.

Mr. Marcos feared that the heat endured by Filipinos during the summer peak might weaken their immune system and make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The heat index in Metro Manila and other parts of the country would remain around 40ºC in the next several weeks, the local state weather bureau said earlier. A heat index of 42ºC to 51ºC falls under a “danger category.”

The weekly COVID-19 positivity rate in Metro Manila rose to 14.3% on April 27 from 9% on April 20, according to the OCTA Research Group. But deaths and hospital admissions in the capital region remained low at 22%.

“The National Capital Region has reported close to zero deaths,” OCTA said in a Friday bulletin.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended a 5% threshold for the positivity rate.

Mr. Marcos notes that while the COVID-19 positivity rate in the country had increased, the “baseline still remains low.”

He expects the new wave of infections not to force him to reimpose mandatory face mask rules.

“Let’s see if there will be guidance from the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, if there will be guidance from the Department of Health (DoH),” he said. “I hope we don’t have to, but we might. I hope not.”

Earlier, OCTA fellow Fredegusto P. David cited the detection of Omicron subvariant XB.1.16 as a possible reason for the significant increase in COVID-19 cases in the country.

Also called Arcturus, the subvariant comes from XBB, a recombinant of two BA.2 descendent lineages. The Health department has said XB.1.16, which is more contagious, could evade immunity.

The WHO has labeled XBB.1.16 a variant of interest.

The DoH on April 25 reported the Philippines’ first XBB.1.16 patient, a Filipino from Iloilo province in central Philippines. The patient was asymptomatic and had since recovered, the agency said on April 26.

Meanwhile, at a roundtable discussion on April 28, League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) Secretary General and Barcelona, Sorsogon Mayor Cynthia Falcotelo-Fortes said the success of any vaccination program in the Philippines relies heavily on local government units.

“What is needed is contextualization in every local government unit. There is no one-size-fits-all program because municipalities have varying contexts,” she said. “Let’s localize programs.”

While support from the National Government through the DoH is needed in vaccination campaigns, local governments should “proactively initiate local programs and be as creative as they can be to increase local immunization rates using available resources,” Ms. Fortes said.

Meanwhile, pediatric infectious disease expert Anna Ong-Lim cited the need to increase childhood vaccination in the country.

She noted that during the pandemic, the Philippines’ “immunization coverage decreased significantly.”

“Most of our immunization coverage is roughly about 50%. What’s our target? 90%, but that’s still conservative. We need to catch up,” Ms. Lim said.

Routine immunization in the Philippines went down to an all-time low of 48.5% in 2021 and recovered in 2022 to 62.9%. Experts said with progressing COVID-19 vaccinations and easing restrictions, there is an opportunity to bounce back and boost routine vaccination and catch-up immunization — vaccinating a person who did not receive it at the recommended age.

Ms. Lim warned that if vaccination rates continue to be low, children are at risk of infectious diseases such as measles, influenza, polio and pneumonia that are just as threatening.

The Leage of Municipalities cited challenges to improve their vaccination rates as low immunization persists in some areas of the country.

“One is parents’ behavior,” Ms. Fortes said. “These young parents, they think vaccination is not safe. On the part of local government units, we continue our advocacy.”

Her town of Barcelona, for instance, brings immunization closer to the people. “We don’t require them to come to our rural health units. We have strategic locations, we do clustering.”

The league made a commitment to support National Government efforts in implementing routine and catch-up vaccination for children.

“I’m calling on my fellow local government chiefs to coordinate with DoH and maximize your resources to improve your local community’s immunization rate,” she told the roundtable.

“The National Government cannot do it alone. It takes all of us to achieve the national target and protect our children from vaccine-preventable diseases,” she added.

“We really bring to life accountability. We don’t point fingers at anyone, but

Once the program is out, we are accountable, and we will define the success rate. We need to raise our level of governance.”