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Mask on, mask off? Health experts weigh in on the optional outdoor mask policy

By SAAB LARIOSA Published Sep 14, 2022 6:34 pm

The wearing of masks has become a part of life amid the pandemic. Are we prepared to make the shift into making it optional?

On Sept. 12, President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. signed Executive Order (EO) No. 3 stipulating that the nationwide wearing of face masks outdoors will be optional.

Under the EO, Filipinos are now given the option to refrain from wear masks outside, save for senior citizens, immunocompromised individuals, those who aren't fully vaccinated, and areas "where physical distancing cannot be maintained."

The move comes after discussions between the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) and the Department of Health (DOH). The implementation took place immediately upon its publication in the Official Gazette on Monday.

With the world three years deep into the pandemic, a number of other countries have implemented the same measures such as Singapore, the USA, and the majority of EU countries. The Philippines is the latest ASEAN country to remove the mask mandate after Thailand.

Since the decision, health experts have shared their stance on the new policy and what it means for public health.

The need for milestones

Dr. Tony Leachon, former Special Adviser to the National Task Force on COVID-19, called the move "premature" because of the step-by-step measures that have yet to be implemented.

"Because if you try to liberalize face masking, then it means that you are relaxing, it means that there is a decreased transmission but in reality it is not, because [The Philippines'] positivity rate has increased as of Sept. 12," he shared in an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe. 

The Philippines has a 13.8% cumulative positivity rate as of writing. It recorded a higher 16.4% positivity rate in August.

He suggested that a pilot program ought to be implemented by  LGUs first, similar to Cebu City's optional face mask trial period so experts, can know if there would be an increase in the number of cases during pilot testing.

Independent COVID-19 research group, OCTA, made mention that while they support the government's decision to make masks optional outdoors, milestones must still be achieved as a prerequisite.

They said that the relaxation of the mask mandates outdoors was already being discussed by OCTA early as May as part of initiatives for exiting the pandemic, but the matter of timing is key.

"The key issue for OCTA was not if but when to lift the mask mandate for the outdoors. We have been at the forefront of advocating the relaxation of the mask mandate for the outdoors as long as these spaces are not crowded and there is good ventilation," OCTA Research Group's David Guido shared in a statement with PhilSTAR L!fe.

"OCTA has suggested to the government through channels that a set of milestones be achieved first as a prerequisite to the lifting of the outdoor mask mandate (such as increasing booster rates, etc.) as well as defining a set of triggers to reimpose the use of masks outdoors should a serious surge in cases happen."

For their part, Guido also promised that OCTA will continue its work of monitoring the state of COVID-19 in the country in support of the collective effort to fight the pandemic and to boost vaccination and booster programs.

"Mask or no mask, the vax programs need to be intensified as these are the most viable ways to protect our citizens," they concluded.

Considering Booster rates

Similar to OCTA's statement, Leachon also called for the need for a metric system in consideration of booster programs when it comes to implementing changes in COVID-19 management.

Leachon said that the EO could "water down" the nationwide PinasLakas Booster program implemented by the government.

"After this PinasLakas program, and the formal opening of face-to-face classes on November 2, that would be the best time to implement the outdoor face masks. Because it could send mixed signals to the populace and send a surge."

According to the national health department's Sept. 13 COVID-19 vaccination dashboard, the Philippines has recorded a total of over 18M or 23% of fully boosted individuals. PinasLakas aims to provide 23 million booster shots during the first 100 days of the Marcos administration by Oct. 8, 2023.

In a Sept. 13 Laging Handa briefing, infectious disease expert Edsel Salvana said that there are always of higher cases whenever there are public health changes. But similar to making exceptions for outdoor sports and while eating out, the optional face mask policy is a way to adapt to changes.

"Of course, anytime magre-relax ka ng mga public health standards, there’s always the risk na tataas ang number of cases bagamat nakita naman natin in the last few months dahil sa antas na rin ng pagbabakuna natin," he said.

"Inextend lang natin all the way to ‘yong mga well-ventilated non-crowded settings. Tignan po natin kung kakayanin natin sa ganitong pamamaraan dahil kinakailangan na rin naman natin po talagang mag-start to adapt to ‘yong tinatawag na new normal."

Go Negosyo founder and Private Sector Advisory Council lead for jobs Joey Concepcion also welcomed the change.

“We are moving to a new phase, one where Filipinos can manage their own risks and where our approach now shifts to making sure we have mitigation strategies in place," he said in a Sept. 12 statement.

"We should ensure that we have enough supply of antiviral pills, especially Paxlovid, which we are currently out of stock in the country. This will become crucial as people start moving around without masks outdoors,” he added.

To mask or not to mask?

In the same Laging Handa briefing, Salvana rallied behind Filipinos continuing to wear face masks.

"We’re hopeful na, to be that safest as possible, people would continue to wear masks. Voluntary naman po ito, so ibig sabihin kung gusto mong gamitin pa rin, gamitin mo pa rin. But at the same time, tinitignan po natin ‘yong unti-unting pagluwag para makita rin natin po kung ano po ba talaga ‘yong pinaka-calibrated response as COVID becomes more and more endemic," he said.

Dr. Lulu Bravo, executive director of the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination, also said that wearing face masks doesn't just serve as protection against COVID-19, but against other communicable diseases.

“If you have a comorbidity, are immunocompromised, you have cancer, a transplant patient, elderly and vulnerable, face mask protects you not just from COVID-19, but from other diseases like flu,” said Bravo on Monday.

"The most vulnerable of the population needs protection since these illnesses can also lead to death,” she said. Bravo advised the public to be on guard not just against COVID-19 but also against other illnesses that could be just as deadly or worse."

"Let us continue to wear masks, wash hands and protect the vulnerable. That is a symbol that we love and care for them," she said.