‘You could kill your loved ones’: DOH, experts warn against holiday gatherings amid pandemic

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 16) — Thousands died of the coronavirus disease in the Philippines this year, leaving empty seats at some Christmas tables.

As grim as it may sound, Dr. Michael Tan, a medical anthropologist and professor at the University of the Philippines, is urging the public to take a look at the rising COVID-19 death toll in hopes of discouraging holiday gatherings.

"People want to be with their loved ones but might end up killing them," Tan told CNN Philippines' Front and Center. "I'm sorry to be so blunt but you could kill your loved ones."

Of the more than 451,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, some 92.7% or nearly 419,000 have recovered while 8,812 succumbed to the disease. While the official death rate may be relatively low, Tan said families should take into consideration the elderly and members with comorbidities who are at higher risk for infection and death.

"Think of the ones who are vulnerable, 'yung mga lolo at lola (our grandparents). We just cannot afford to take chances," Tan said.

The Department of Health has repeatedly urged the public to limit gatherings to household members, well aware of the Christmas and New Year tradition of celebrating with relatives and friends.

READ: Health experts: Defer travel plans, limit Christmas gatherings to household members

"Even if you celebrate nga within the household, there is still that risk of having the infection especially if one of the members of the family goes out to work or maybe went out to the groceries," Health Spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said.

This is why some medical frontliners are afraid of going home, said Dr. Anna Ong-Lim, pediatric infectious disease specialist and member of the Health Professionals Alliance against COVID-19. They are afraid of infecting their loved ones.

"If this is the behavior of a healthcare worker who understands how the disease is being transmitted, ikaw na nag-iingat, balot na balot ka na nga, naka-level 4 PPE ka, takot ka pang umuwi, paano pa kaya siguro yung common public or ordinary people na talagang umiikot tayo kasi nagtatrabaho na tayo," Ong-Lim said.

[Translation: If this is the behavior of a healthcare worker who understands how the disease is being transmitted, someone who's taking extra precaution, wearing level-4 personal protective equipment, and yet is still afraid of going home, this should also be the mindset of the common public who are coming home from work.]

Post-holiday surge

Experts have warned of a post-holiday surge in infections. "Actually, hindi na po possible kasi nakikita na po natin na tumataas na po yung mga kaso sa iba't ibang lugar," Vergeire said.

[Translation: Actually, it's already happening, we are seeing a rise in cases in different areas.]

This week, Metro Manila's reproduction rate for the coronavirus already breached the threshold of 1, a sign more people are being infected, according to the OCTA Research Team. The capital region has the most number of COVID-19 cases, but private hospitals are saying any more spikes would be tough to handle with the lack of nurses and resources.

Ong-Lim shared the healthcare workers' "APAT Dapat" campaign to prevent further spread of COVID-19. A stands for air circulation, reminding the public that virus transmission is high in poorly ventilated areas. P is for physical distancing of at least one meter. A is to always wear face masks and face shields – which is now required in all public areas, while T stands for taking note of the time by keeping the meeting to not more than 30 minutes.

Vergeire said the public should follow all health protocols, and that the prospect of the COVID-19 vaccination starting next year should not result in complacency. Even if a vaccine becomes available as expected in the first quarter of 2021, it will take three to five more years to vaccinate at least 60 million Filipinos, officials said.

Even a negative coronavirus test result does not mean it is safe to attend a gathering, Vergeire said, noting that the incubation period – or the time between exposure to the virus and the onset of symptoms – can take days. The virus can also be caught any time after a COVID-19 test.

"If you get tested now, it doesn't preclude you that you're going to be exposed tomorrow and you get the illness in the coming days," Vergeire said.

Nine months into varying levels of community quarantine, it would be difficult to stop the people from heading out and seeing each another, but constantly reminding them of the risks might help, Tan said.

Catch the full interviews on CNN Philippines' Front and Center, airing on Wednesday, December 16 at 7 pm.