‘THE VIRUS STILL HERE’: PHO encourages public to wear face masks despite COVID status change

(Arnold Almacen/file photo)

By John Noel E. Herrera

The Iloilo Provincial Health Office (PHO) encouraged the public to continue wearing face masks as an added layer of protection, despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) earlier declaration that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is no longer a global health emergency.

IPHO chief Dr. Maria Socorro Colmenares-Quiñon, on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, explained that there are no big adjustments to the health protocols in the province, but noted that the public is encouraged to wear face masks.

“I am still encouraging everyone nga mag use sang masks kay not are we only protecting ourselves from COVID-19, but other infectious diseases. Dako gid ang protection nga kung mag masks ka hindi ka prone (to diseases) and malikawan ang pag spread,” Quiñon said on Tuesday, May 9, 2023.

The PHO also welcomed the declaration of the WHO, but Quiñon noted that the threat of the virus is still present and “it is still killing and still changing.”

“Happy kita kay tungod nga amu dun na ang status. Ang threat sang-una nga grabe gid ang kulba and mataas ang mortality rate, pero subong nagnubo na kay laban bakunado na. Pero (as WHO also said) the virus is here to say. It is still killing and still changing. Makita ta naman sa sini nga mga inadlaw, daw isa na kabulan nga naga amat-amat man taas aton COVID-19 cases,” Quiñon stressed.

The PHO cited the first reported case of COVID-19 Omicron XBB.1.16 subvariant, also called “Arcturus” and the gradual increase of cases in the province as factors that the public should not be complacent and still practice health protocols.

Governor Arthur Defensor Jr. earlier said that there is no need to make adjustments to the COVID-19 protocols despite the spike in cases and the first reported “Arcturus” case in the province, as the healthcare utilization rate (HCUR) and the Average Daily Attack Rate (ADAR) in Iloilo remain low.

Data from PHO indicated that the province’s ADAR is only at 0.26 percent, while its HCUR is at 37.52 percent.

Defensor reiterated that the rule on wearing face masks, along with other health and safety protocols in the province, is still based on Executive Order No. 260 s. 2022, which is anchored with the COVID-19 Inter-agency Task Force (IATF) guidelines.

“Amu man sa gihapon ang ginasunod naton because we have the protocols under Alert Level System 1. We will go back to that protocol,” he said.

EO No. 260 stated that under Alert Level 1, the wearing of facemasks in open spaces or non-crowded outdoor areas with good ventilation shall be optional, “provided that not fully-vaccinated individuals, senior citizens and immunocompromised individuals are highly encouraged to wear their face masks at all times in indoor and outdoor venues.”

While in other open spaces or outdoor areas where mass gatherings and social distancing cannot be maintained, the wearing of face masks shall be mandatory.

Quiñon, on the other hand, reminded the public to be vaccinated and get their booster shots as it is the best protection against the virus and its possible complications.

“May ara man sa gihapon (chance) nga atong mga wala nagpabakuna, mataas ang risgo nga posible mapatay sila sa COVID-19, and that is why gina-encourage ta man sagihapon nga ang tanan naton nga mga senior citizens, may comorbidities dapat naga second booster na,” the IPHO chief said.

As of May 8, 2023, there are already 1,292,616 individuals, or 88.43 percent who have completed their primary series of vaccination, but only 290,488, or 19.87 percent have received their first booster shots, while 25,410 or 1.74 percent got their second booster jabs.

Data from the Department of Health (DOH)-6 also showed that Iloilo province has a total of 948 active cases, with 15 new reported cases on Monday, May 8.

Meanwhile, following the declaration of WHO, Iloilo City Mayor Jerry P. Treñas issued Executive Order No. 55, series of 2023, which makes the wearing of face masks in the city voluntary again.

Under the EO, the wearing of face masks in indoor and outdoor settings is voluntary, except inside healthcare facilities, medical transport vehicles, and public transportation.

While immunocompromised individuals, senior citizens, individuals with comorbidities, pregnant women, and those who are unvaccinated are “highly encouraged” to wear face masks.

In April 2023, the city government decided to reimpose the mandatory wearing of face masks in closed and crowded areas as COVID-19 cases in the city started to increase.