The Department of Health (DOH) on Thursday said that the government needs to continuously increase COVID-19 primary series vaccination coverage across the country and ramp up vaccination among senior citizens and persons with underlying conditions. Expanding coverage will be immensely critical in managing the pandemic and reopening the economy.

“We have to prioritize vaccinating those who have not yet received a single dose of COVID-19 vaccines, especially in our provinces and other far-flung areas. Because these areas typically have lower health care capacity, it becomes more important that the people are protected from severe and critical COVID-19. And of course, we have to make sure that 100% of high-risk groups in our regions have received the primary series. If they remain unvaccinated, they won’t get the needed additional protection against severe COVID-19. This will lead to hospitalizations and overwhelm our health system, and consequently, lifting of restrictions will be delayed.” said DOH Spokesperson and Undersecretary Maria Rosario Singh-Vergeire.

The DOH added that the agency is planning for the eventual provision of booster doses, which will continue to prioritize the health care workers and immunocompromised. However, such rollout will only be greenlighted once conclusive evidence of additional protection is available. The DOH reiterated that its policies and recommendations underscores principles of evidence-based medicine and equity.

The DOH said that based on its review as of September 21, only 12 countries in the world have started to administer booster shots. These countries have focused on administering booster shots among their elderly and immunocompromised population groups in very limited settings. Majority of these countries have achieved more than 50% coverage for primary series of their population.

Among public health experts, there remains to be no global consensus on the implementation of COVID-19 booster shots. Both the health department and the World Health Organization agree that in consideration of the constraints in global supply of vaccines, administering boosters will aggravate inequities as this will increase demand. “There are many senior citizens and people with underlying conditions who have not yet received a primary vaccination series. Let us focus on protecting them first and the rest of the population, as the national government expands its vaccination program,” added Undersecretary Vergeire.

“In light of this, WHO is asking for a moratorium on booster doses, but let me also clarify what we mean by a booster dose. It means a third dose for people who have already received two doses of a vaccine, and really we don’t have the evidence that people who have already received two vaccine doses of WHO-approved, EUL-granted vaccines require a third dose, unless they are immunocompromised and could not develop an immune response to the first two doses,” said Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO Representative to the Philippines.

Further, the DOH said that its pool of experts is continuously reviewing the latest evidence on booster shots and meets every two weeks to assess the current recommendation. While the clear benefits and effectiveness of booster shots have yet to be established, the Department strongly emphasizes the additive effects of various tools and interventions that can protect individuals and their families against COVID-19.

“Administering booster doses is not a matter of if but when do we administer them. This is what our experts are studying. To ensure the safety of our healthcare workers, hospitals and workplaces should try to adopt staggered meal schedules and eating alone in the workstation is highly encouraged together with ensuring proper fit of personal protective equipment being issued to them. We also remind our kababayan to continuously wear a face mask complemented with a face shield, wash their hands, observe physical distancing, ensure proper ventilation whenever indoors. Getting vaccinated together with observing safety protocols help lessen the transmission of COVID-19. Let’s continue to protect ourselves and our families against COVID-19,” said Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III.