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Vaccination of healthcare workers this year urged

A HOUSE leader on Monday called on the government to vaccinate healthcare workers by January 2021 to prepare for a possible surge in cases due to coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) mutations.

Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda, chairman of the House committee on ways and means, also urged the passage of the Bayanihan sa Bakuna Act for faster vaccine procurement, distribution, and administration, as he called on government to approve vaccines already tested on Filipinos abroad.

Salceda, whose Risk Science Team has provided the executive and the House leadership with recommendations and analyses for managing the COVID-19 pandemic, said the government must prepare healthcare capacity for a possible surge in cases due to more infectious COVID-19 mutations.

He underscored the importance to immediately pass House Bill (HB) 8285 or the Bayanihan sa Bakuna Act, as January may be the crucial window for preparing against a possible surge in cases.

“The virus has mutated in the UK. That’s normal, because viruses always mutate. At some point, it may even mutate domestically in the Philippines. Because we know it will happen, we must prepare for it,” the House tax chief said.

In an aide memoire to the House leadership, titled “THE RISK OF THE NEW COVID-19 STRAIN AND PROPOSED MITIGATION STRATEGIES,” Salceda cited studies in the United Kingdom which suggest that the new COVID-19 mutation could be 56 to 70 percent more infectious.

“Infectious simply means it spreads faster. There is no evidence that it is more lethal on a per-person basis. But the main risk is really getting the healthcare system overwhelmed. Because, even if the new strain itself is less serious, if you can’t treat people anymore because you are fully occupied, the risks escalate,” Salceda explained.

“We have to vaccinate our health care workers early, so that they can save lives without risking their own. We need to prepare for surge capacity at the earliest sign of a real new surge. And we need to strictly enforce minimum health standards,” Salceda said.

New surge could come by February, Bayanihan sa Bakuna Act needed

On December 30, Salceda filed the Bayanihan sa Bakuna Act which would expedite vaccine procurement and allow for the approval of vaccines already tested successfully on Filipinos abroad.

Salceda recommended the bill’s adoption, in connection with his call to the House leadership to help government vaccinate health care workers by January 2021.

“Using the figures for the new mutation, this representation’s risks science team modeled potential case increases if the strain were ever to reach the country at this day, and found that health care capacity could be overwhelmed by February 2021, unless minimum health standards are strengthened,” Salceda wrote in his aide memoire.

“Actually, our nurses were among the first to receive the vaccines abroad. Vaccines are tested on specific ethnic or racial background because of variations in immune response along these lines. That need no longer exists if the vaccines have been tested on Filipinos abroad already. Vaccines administered successfully to our nurses in Canada and the UK should be leading candidates for procurement, because we already know they work on Filipinos,” Salceda commented.

Salceda also asked the government to encourage the private sector to procure vaccines.

“The private sector is likely to procure at least some doses at faster speed than the public sector, as it is not bound to the budgeting, procurement, and administrative constraints that the public sector abides by. House Bill No. 8285 or the Bayanihan sa Bakuna Act also mandates the government to help the private sector procure, distribute, and administer vaccines by liberalizing the grant of incentives for such efforts, and facilitating their applications to import such vaccines,” Salceda wrote.

Earlier, Salceda also said the House is prepared to provide tax incentives for importation of COVID-19 vaccines.

In the meantime, Salceda added, minimum health standards should be strictly enforced.

“While quarantines that are severely economically paralyzing may not be sensible on a cost-benefit perspective at this point, the strict enforcement of minimum health standards will allow the economy to continue operating at prudent levels while keeping transmission under control. Strict mask-wearing alone is shown to reduce infections by between 70 to 100%. Minimum health standards such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and frequent handwashing and sanitizing can slow if not near-totally blunt the impacts of the new strain of COVID-19 if these standards are faithfully observed,” Salceda wrote in his aide memoire.