People urged to remain vigilant over Lunar New Year holiday amid new COVID variants

January 09, 2023 - 08:33
Dr. Angela Pratt, World Health Organisation (WHO) Việt Nam Representative, talks to local media on the concerning sub-variant of Omicron, XBB, and recommended anti-pandemic measures for Việt Nam.
Most people still wear masks in places like supermarkets, even with the COVID-19 situation fully under control domestically. Photo was taken in Hà Nội in January 2023. — VNA/VNS Photo Trần Việt

Dr Angela Pratt, World Health Organisation (WHO) Việt Nam Representative, talks to local media about the concerning sub-variant of Omicron, XBB, and recommended anti-pandemic measures for Việt Nam.

The new sub-variant XBB of Omicron has been detected in HCM City. According to experts, this could be the worst version of Omicron regarding the speed of transmission. How does WHO evaluate this sub-variant?

The emergence of this new variant shows that, unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet – much as we all wish it were!

We know that while COVID-19 is circulating anywhere, there is a risk of new surges in cases and the emergence of dangerous new variants.

Since June 2022, Omicron has been the only variant of concern circulating globally. However, from the Omicron variant, we have seen the emergence of several sub-variants, including XBB – which is a recombinant or combination – of two other Omicron sub-variants.

XBB and its sub-variants have now been reported in over ten countries in this region, including Việt Nam, and it is likely to continue to spread.

We currently know that XBB and its sub-variants are more transmissible than other sub-variants. That is the worrying news.

Although studies are ongoing to understand the potential of this variant better to evade prior immunity – to get past the protective “shield” provided by existing vaccines – the good news is that so far, there is no evidence of a change in the severity of disease caused by XBB, and current diagnostics and protection measures remain effective – including the WHO approved vaccines.

These vaccines have stood up well to new variants and are still highly effective at preventing severe illness and death from COVID-19.

So at the moment, WHO recommends the same precautions for XBB as we do for other Omicron sub-variants and COVID-19 more broadly. That is: mask up in high-risk settings such as crowded and enclosed places, frequent handwashing, and for both adults and children, please ensure you are fully vaccinated, including with all recommended booster doses.

During this holiday season – we, of course, want people to have fun and enjoy time with friends and family, but we also urge people to be vigilant – to stay healthy and safe.

So please, before the holidays start, there’s still time to ensure you are fully vaccinated, and please do keep practising those basic public health measures – such as masking up and washing hands.

At this point, many countries will reopen, lowering the warning level of the COVID-19 pandemic. Does WHO have any recommendations for Việt Nam in strengthening current epidemic prevention measures?

Last year, Việt Nam transitioned to what we call the ‘sustained management’ phase of COVID-19 – and has been doing a very good job balancing economic and social development with protecting the health and safeguarding the health system. While we know COVID-19 is circulating in Việt Nam, hospitals and health services are not overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.

But we know the pandemic is not over, and people are still being infected, hospitalised – and dying – in many countries worldwide. And while the virus is circulating anywhere, all countries and us individually still face some risks.

In response to this, the Ministry of Health has directed relevant agencies to enhance surveillance at points of entry to the country and community and healthcare facilities and strengthen genomic sequencing – that is, the testing which tells us which variants and sub-variants are circulating. These are all very prudent measures, which will help us to detect if another surge is coming and to prepare accordingly.

The Ministry of Health is also stepping up its communications on COVID-19 protective behaviours during the Tết (Lunar New Year) holidays – this is important because we all have a role to play in slowing transmission of the virus.

One of the most important things each individual can do is to ensure you and all your family members and friends are vaccinated, including booster doses if you’re eligible to receive one. There’s still time before the holidays to do this.

Being fully vaccinated is especially important for high-risk groups, including the elderly, healthcare workers, immuno-compromised people, adults with underlying health conditions, teachers, pregnant women and essential workers.

In the coming weeks, especially over the Lunar New Year period, we need to ensure that both adults and children are protected, that the health system can keep functioning well, and that the economy and society can stay open.

We encourage people to be vigilant to stay healthy and safe, which means frequent hand washing and masking up in crowded and enclosed spaces and for everyone in Việt Nam eligible to ensure they are fully vaccinated – and boosted. — VNS

To date, Việt Nam has recorded over 11.52 million cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with case fatality at 0.4 per cent.From the beginning of the year, daily new COVID-19 incidences have dropped below 100.For a population of 98 million people, the country has administered upwards of 265.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Over 82 per cent of the adult population (people aged 18 years and above) have received booster shots, while 68.5 per cent of the children aged 12-17 years have been boosted.Nearly 93 per cent of the children between 5 to under 12 years have received at least one dose of vaccine, with 74.2 per cent fully vaccinated.