As the country takes tentative steps toward the new year armed with guarded optimism due to the looming threat of the Omicron variant even as new COVID-19 infections remain low, the Department of Health has announced that it will no longer issue the case bulletins that has been publicized on a daily basis since the start of the pandemic.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergerie made the announcement at the tail-end of a Dec. 27 briefing, where the DOH also announced the country's fourth confirmed Omicron case. Shortly after the briefing, the DOH posted a terse notice on its social media pages, explaining only that the move is meant to “streamline public communication.”
“The public tracker, which has been operational since the start of the pandemic, contains all information being provided in the case bulletin and daily situation report. Hence, to streamline public communication, the case bulletin and the daily situation report will no longer be issued separately as social media card and PDF file, respectively,” the DOH said.
DOH, however, said that it will continue to update its online COVID 19 tracker, a daily dashboard that provides an overview of the pandemic's relevant indicators, compared to the daily snapshot of the case bulletin shared on social media.
Vergeire said that the DOH is also eyeing to present a more condensed analysis of COVID-19 data and assured the public that their website will not experience crashes following the transition.
In separate media interviews on Dec. 28 with CNN Philippines and DZMM TeleRadyo, Vergeire maintained that no information will be hidden from the public by next year. Rather, the COVID-19 tracker will provide the public with relevant analysis compared to the raw information of the case bulletins.
"Para pong analysis to better guide our public kung ano po ang dapat gawin at ano po ’yung mga nangyayari talaga dito po sa ating bansa with regard to COVID-19," Vergeire told TeleRadyo.
'Focus on vaccinations'
When asked during the Dec. 28 palace briefing about the issue, acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles, who also co-chairs the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, meanwhile explained that "the focus right now is vaccination."
"The reason behind that is right now we are ramping up our vaccination and the focus right now is the vaccination," said Nograles.
"That being said, anyone can continue to track the numbers through the DOH COVID tracker... The tracker will suffice for now with providing regular updates, the IATF will continue to monitor all of these indicators we have been looking at from the very start."
"Yung format lang po ng reporting ang nagbago. Hindi naman namin sinasabi na hindi na namin imomonitor ang lahat ng iyan," he added.
Nograles, however, did not detail how a focus on vaccinations, which the government has been doing already for quite some time, merits the discontinuance of the case bulletins, which has usually guided policymakers for the duration of the pandemic.
An 'established means' of public engagement
A number of Filipinos quickly aired out their sentiments on social media, with many questioning the wisdom behind the move.
Physician and anthropologist Gideon Lasco called on the health agency to reverse its decision.
"Beyond just providing information, the daily reporting underscores the urgency of the pandemic and serves as an already-established means to engage the public," Lasco wrote on Twitter.
I am calling on the DOH to reverse its decision to discontinue the daily reporting of COVID cases. Beyond just providing information, the daily reporting underscores the urgency of the pandemic and serves as an already-established means to engage the public.— Gideon Lasco (@gideonlasco) December 27, 2021
Kabataan Party-list Rep. Sarah Elago also mentioned that the daily situational reports on social media allow more accessible means of getting the COVID-19 information across Filipinos: "Mas kailangan ito ngayon sa vaccination campaign at pagbabantay sa COVID-19 cases & Omicron variant. Timely, accurate info can save more lives."
DOH should continue issuing daily case bulletins, situational reports through social media and other platforms that are more accessible. Mas kailangan ito ngayon sa vaccination campaign at pagbabantay sa COVID-19 cases & Omicron variant. Timely, accurate info can save more lives.— Sarah Elago (@sarahelago) December 27, 2021
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. went on to pose a few questions for the DOH, such as if the bulletin updates are outsourced and whether or not budget and manpower were properly allocated.
"DoH should have adequate funds for this. Hindi dapat tinitipid. Hindi dapat binabawasan," he mentioned.
Is the publication of daily updates outsourced? Has the contract ended? Are there budgetary and manpower issues? DoH should have adequate funds for this. Hindi dapat tinitipid. Hindi dapat binabawasan.— Renato Reyes, Jr. (@natoreyes) December 28, 2021
Health reform advocate Dr. Tony Leachon called the move "counterintuitive" as the threat of the Omicron variant looms.
"Do it yourself COVID 19 data monitoring [is] just like a critical patient being monitored without vital signs. How can we manage what we don’t measure? Leachon told PhilSTAR L!fe.
"To remove the DOH case bulletin is a huge disservice," Leachon added, citing the need for better communication due to the Omicron threat and an uptick in the positivity rate, or the number of confirmed COVID infections out of the total tested.
OCTA Research Group's David Guido also questioned the timing amid the fear of the Omicron variant, but shared that "in the interest of the public, OCTA Research will continue to provide trends and the COVID-19 situation in the country."
Various senators have also called out the decision, with Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri calling the move a "mistake".
"Whether it is decreasing or increasing it is the right of the people to know this and be informed about it. I respectfully urge the DOH to continue these announcements so that we may be guided accordingly," Zubiri said during the Dec. 27 Senate hearing.
"Now more than ever, with the Omicron variant should we be more on guard for the public’s safety."
Sen. Richard Gordon, who also helms the Philippine Red Cross, mentioned that “every decent health department in the whole world” is regularly updating its citizens on the COVID-19 pandemic, and urged DOH to follow suit.
“Maybe they lack personnel... but that can be done by others. The people must have information and it’s important that the people listen so they know how to be careful. I think it’s important for the safety of the people."
In June 2021, Singapore's COVID-19 task force also planned a reorganization of the country's COVID-19 strategy, which involved doing away with counting the daily COVID-19 infections.
In the roadmap, Singapore would scrap lockdowns, contact tracing, and quarantine-free travel while relying on high vaccination rates.
"We can turn the pandemic into something much less threatening, like influenza, hand, foot and mouth disease, or chickenpox, and get on with our lives," the task force members shared regarding the goal of the laxer roadmap.
The Singapore task force, however, has since halted the plan in order to focus on their Omicron variant response and the rolling out of booster shots.
On Dec. 3, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua also proposed in a speaking engagement a new approach in living with COVID-19.
According to Chua, the government ought to shift to an "endemic paradigm, which will empower Filipinos to learn how to live with the virus."
Chua urged the government to shift the primary metrics used for decision-making and public reporting. Instead of total cases and deaths, Chua said metrics should focus on the total severe or critical cases, the case fatality ratio, and total vaccinated.
“Similar to how we do it with the flu, we count those who are severely or critically affected, or are in the hospital, but we do not report anymore the number of mild cases," Chua said.
“In the early part of 2020, we did not really understand how the virus spreads, so we were mostly risk-averse. But now that we know more about the virus, we have to implement these policies to accelerate and sustain our growth and recovery,” Chua added.
Amid the threat of the Omicron variant being more transmissible than the initial variants such as Delta, early indications so far show that it does not appear to be more severe.
A December study in the UK also adds to a growing body of evidence that the risk of hospital admission with Omicron is less, or between 50-70%, even if it may increase infection rates.
There is no telling yet for now if the DOH will indeed do away with publicizing the daily number of new infections by January 2022, a time when both the Omicron's perceived danger plus the onset of the election season will add further layers to the country's increasingly delicate balancing act in trying to live with the virus.