At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic locally, can people afford not to wear masks indoors? This is considering the present rate of infection, the number of cases, the number of vaccinated people, the waning efficacy of vaccines over time, and the emergence of new variants. Also, if many countries have already dropped the mask mandate, should we also do the same?
The government seems to think so. Otherwise, it would not have issued Executive Order No. 7 that makes the wearing of masks indoors purely voluntary, except in health care facilities, while on medical transport, or when using public transportation. Previously, the government also issued an order for the voluntary wearing of masks outdoors.
EO No. 7 rationalizes the decision to remove the mask mandate by stating that “a policy of voluntary wearing of face masks in both indoor and outdoor settings is a positive step towards normalization, and a welcome development that would encourage activities and boost efforts toward the full reopening of the economy.”
Meantime, the Department of Education (DepEd) has also required public schools to resume face-to-face classes full time at all levels starting this November. In addition, DepEd announced that students are now free to choose whether they would use face masks while in school. This is in line with EO No. 7 removing the mask requirement.
With all these, it seems that growing the economy takes priority over protecting public health, with the government implying that the economy — or businesses — cannot thrive or fully “reopen” while people are still required to wear masks. But, if this is this truly the case, then why are masks still “encouraged” for the elderly, those with comorbidities or immunocompromised, and for those pregnant or unvaccinated or symptomatic?
Couple this with the Department of Health’s own warning, as reported in media, that optional indoor masking could result in up to 18,000 new infections per day by late 2022. DoH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire cited projections by scientists that daily COVID-19 cases may range from 2,500 to as high as 18,000 before the end of the year because of new mask rules.
She also said, “There’s this agreement with [the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases] that we will still have unified messaging wherein we still highly encourage wearing of masks, especially in high-risk areas like public transport, health facilities, and for the vulnerable like the elderly, pregnant women, the unvaccinated”.
Time and time again, the DoH has cautioned against easing masking rules, with Vergeire noting this could be aggravated by the emergence of new COVID Omicron subvariants and increased mobility of the public. “Cases are going to increase,” she was quoted as telling media. “What we need to preserve would be our health care capacity.”
Active COVID cases as of Nov. 1 total over 19,000. A news report noted that in the past two weeks, the National Capital Region recorded the highest number of COVID cases with 5,106, followed by Calabarzon with 3,170, Central Luzon with 1,855, Western Visayas with 1,713, and the Davao Region with 1,186. In Makati City, based on local tracking, there were 66 active cases as of Nov. 1, way down from a peak of 3,298 cases on Sept. 9, 2021.
So, with 19,000 active cases nationwide to date, should people already start unmasking? Perhaps so, if seen in relation to a total population of over 100 million people and with over four million people only, or about 4% of the population, having gotten sick with COVID since the pandemic started. Deaths totaled over 64,000 so far.
But the thing is, experience shows us that COVID cases have peaks and valleys. Since 2021, the pandemic has had four surges: April 2021, September 2021, January 2022, and August 2022. This is not counting the initial stages of the pandemic in 2020, which was tempered mainly by prolonged lockdowns.
The timing of the easing of masking rules is a concern considering the emergence of new Omicron subvariants, the waning effect of vaccines, the low uptake of vaccine boosters, as well as the increased mobility during the Christmas season. In Makati City, for instance, there were only 16 active COVID cases on Dec. 21, 2021. But this count surged to 2,435 by Jan. 30, 2022, after five weeks of the Christmas holidays.
Also, a concern is that once masking rules are lifted, the masking mandate will be difficult to reimplement as soon as another surge starts. With people getting unmasked starting this month, can they still be made to put their masks back on later? At what point or threshold will mask mandates resume, if at all?
Masks, obviously, are the final line of defense not only against COVID-19 but also against other airborne viruses. Even the DoH itself feels uneasy about easing masks rules, knowing fully well that even with vaccines, people are far more vulnerable to getting COVID if they don’t wear masks, particularly while indoors with other people.
My only consolation is that the public seems to know better than to insist on EO No. 7. Having been out on errands almost daily since Friday last week, despite the easing of masking rules, I noticed that most people still kept their masks on particularly indoors, except when dining. In fact, even outdoors, most kept their masks on. A quick trip outside Metro Manila on Tuesday revealed the same thing. In this line, I think even students will continue to opt to wear masks while in school.
I hope people will continue to be considerate. It is obvious that the pandemic is far from over. And I suppose they also realize that at the end of the day, it is not up to the government but to themselves to ensure their safety. Having gotten used to wearing a mask since March 2020, keeping it on meantime is a small price to pay for continued protection. Better safe than sorry.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, an a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council