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The Philippines vaccinated more than 7.5 million people against COVID in 3 days

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Philippines has reached a milestone in its battle against the pandemic. The country has vaccinated more than 7.5 million people in just three days this week. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the unprecedented push to immunize the Philippine public ages 12 and up.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The government's just-completed three-day vaccination drive fell short of its goal to immunize 9 million people. But the sheer outpouring eclipsed any disappointment. Well over 7 million Filipinos embraced the campaign, pouring into 11,000 vaccination centers that offered first-time shots, second doses and boosters.

CONKY QUIZON: It's a big, big deal.

MCCARTHY: Conky Quizon is a member of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group. She says timing the vaccine drive to the run up to Christmas was a surefire way to attract the masses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SA PASKONG DARATING")

CELESTE LEGASPI: (Singing in Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: The Gloriana Mall in Metro Manila buzzed with masked holiday shoppers as one main hall became an immunization site, festooned with banners promoting the vaccine. Hundreds had arranged themselves on plastic chairs, taking their turn to be vaccinated. Among them was 33-year-old Elmer Bolonoyos (ph), driver for a towing company. He says he was hesitant of the vaccines so waited and watched.

ELMER BOLONOYOS: (Speaking Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: He was encouraged, seeing no one experiencing bad side effects and prompted by the possibility things could get worse. "One of the reasons why I came here is because of the new variant," he says. Omicron has not been detected yet in the Philippines, but the health minister said it's not a question of whether it arrives but when. Conky Quizon, meanwhile, says the threat of financial devastation for patients who contract serious COVID-19 infections has also encouraged many to get vaccinated. There have been reports of patients owing as much as $24,000 in hospital bills.

QUIZON: For the ordinary Filipinos that better get yourself vaccinated because you really cannot afford to be sick.

MCCARTHY: The Philippines has ranked as one of the region's poorest performers in addressing the pandemic, but new daily cases have steeply declined to 435 reported today, compared to more than 22,000 reported in a single day just a couple of months ago. University of the Philippines professor and pandemic analyst Guido David says the impressive vaccine campaign may signal that the country has turned a corner. He's not overly concerned about the new variant, saying many experts believe we've converted COVID-19 into something closer to the flu.

GUIDO DAVID: We've increased its infectiousness but really reduced its severity. And they say that in some way, it's a good thing.

MCCARTHY: But President Rodrigo Duterte sees no reason to relax as omicron gains pace. With characteristic bluntness, he told his countrymen, get vaccinated. Choose early demise, he said, or live longer. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.