MANILA, Jan 15 (Reuters/AFP): The Philippine health ministry confirmed the local spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant around Manila on Saturday, as infections hit a record high for a third straight day.
"We are seeing community transmission of the Omicron variant in the capital region," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told a public briefing.
The region is an urban sprawl of 16 cities home to more than 13 million people.
The community transmission of the Omicron variant is characterised by a steep rise in cases, Vergeire said, adding that infections may peak from the end of this month to mid-February.
The ministry reported 39,004 new Covid-19 infections on Saturday, while active cases also hit a record, at 280,813.
With more than 3.16 million cases and nearly 53,000 deaths, the Philippines has the highest Covid-19 infections and casualties in South-East Asia after Indonesia.
Schools in the Philippine capital Manila were also ordered on Friday (Jan 14) to suspend online classes for a week, as an Omicron-driven record surge in infections ravages the metropolis of 13 million.
Covid-19 is ripping through the national capital region and surrounding provinces, causing widespread disruption to businesses, services and healthcare providers.
The order for schools in the capital to suspend online lessons until January 22 was to "ease the health burden" for teachers and students, the regional Department of Education said in a memorandum.
Thousands of teachers and students have been infected with Covid-19, according to the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, which has welcomed the "health break".
In an apparent effort to limit the havoc caused by Omicron and get people back to work faster, the government has also shortened the isolation period for people with mild symptoms of the disease from 10 to seven days.
The move to pause lessons comes days after the national Department of Education gave schools across the archipelago the option to suspend classes for two weeks this month as Omicron whips across the nation.
Only around half of the Philippine population is fully vaccinated.
While nearly every country in the world has partially or fully reopened schools for face-to-face lessons, the Philippines has kept them largely closed since March 2020.
A pilot return of some schools to in-person lessons in November was suspended in December as infections rose. - Reuters/AFP