Don't let your guard down, experts say amid threat of new COVID-19 variants

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 5) — New variant or not, the novel coronavirus continues to infect millions of people worldwide and should prompt the stricter implementation of health protocols in the Philippines, experts said.

The Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases said viruses naturally evolve and the only way to prevent further mutations is to stop their transmission.

"Yes, we are all suffering some form of pandemic fatigue," Dr. Marissa Alejandria, president of the PSMID, told CNN Philippines’ Front and Center. "But we need to keep our focus in controlling this virus."

Two new variants said to be more contagious are causing widespread concern across the world -- one discovered in the United Kingdom, another in South Africa.

It remains unclear if any of these two mutations already reached the Philippines, which has recorded more than 479,000 COVID-19 cases.

The government has banned flights from countries with confirmed cases of the variant from UK, while those who arrived prior to travel restrictions will all be tested. Those who test positive through RT-PCR testing will be further examined for the presence of the new variant.

READ: 74 overseas travelers with COVID-19 now being checked for signs of new variant

Although there's no evidence this mutation can cause a more severe illness or a higher risk of death, infectious disease experts said its highly transmissible nature should be enough cause for concern.

"What is saddening about this fact that there is increased transmissibility is also the increased possibility of people getting sick. So, if our hospitals will be inundated with all these patients, our capacity to treat these patients will also suffer somehow," said Dr. Rhona Bergantin, a member of the PSMID.

Prior to the holiday season, the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines warned there were not enough healthcare workers and resources to accommodate the possible surge of COVID-19 patients. Data from the Department of Health showed 31.3% or 25,449 beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients as of Monday.

Post-holiday scenario

The DOH has been recording more or less 1,000 infections after the holiday season, but the daily tally is expected to increase as data from the backlog comes in. The government has appealed to the public to stay home and limit holiday gatherings to household members to prevent further spread of the virus – a call not heeded by many.

In Navotas, the city government had to lock down a residential building after six out of nine family members caught the virus. During contact tracing, authorities found they got it from a relative who visited them on Christmas Day, Mayor Toby Tiangco said.

"That was the biggest risk during the holidays," he added.

President Rodrigo Duterte assured the public he has no plans of declaring a massive lockdown similar to the enhanced community quarantine imposed in Luzon from March to May 2020, which forced businesses to close and displaced thousands of workers. But the President admitted that should the new variant from the UK spread "severely" in the country, "then we'll just have to go back to lockdown."

New variants, same health protocols

For medical experts, preventing the spread of the new variant is within reach if only the public would take the minimum health standards more seriously.

"The same precautionary measures are recommended," Alejandria said, noting that the mode of transmission has not changed. Even the new variants spread through respiratory droplets and direct contact with people infected with the virus.

This is why face masks and face shields should be worn properly in public areas. Crowded places must be avoided and enclosed spaces should be well-ventilated, both Alejandria and Bergantin said.

READ: What does this new coronavirus strain mean for you?

Will the vaccines work vs. mutated virus?

As the country expects the official start of vaccination this year, Alejandria said the vaccines that have been developed are not likely to have been outdated by the new variants.

"We do not expect at this time that the vaccines will not work," she said. "It will take several mutations for the vaccine to really not work."

The government eyes to vaccinate at least 60 million Filipinos starting next year, a program that may last for three to five years. The country has so far secured 2.6 million doses of AztraZeneca’s vaccines through a private sector donation and expects to receive 30 million doses more from Novavax.

Catch the full interviews on CNN Philippines’ Front and Center on January 6, 7 pm.