Philippines marks daily record for COVID-19 cases, as vaccine hesitancy grows

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines reported 9,838 coronavirus cases on Friday, the biggest daily jump since the pandemic began, as the World Bank called for vaccinations to be a priority to limit further deaths and support the country's health system.

Complicating the government's vaccination drive is the reluctance of most Filipinos to receive vaccines due to safety fears, an opinion poll showed, despite wide-scale worries about contracting the virus.

A recent spike in infections has forced authorities to widen tighter restrictions in the capital Manila to surrounding provinces, but once-a-day religious services with up to 10% of a church's capacity will be allowed in the week ahead of Easter.

The Philippines, which is facing the second worst outbreak of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, has seen record new cases in three of the past five days, while infections reported in the past 10 days accounted for a tenth of its total 702,856 cases.

(GRAPHIC - Philippines' daily COVID-19 cases reach new highs  Philippines' daily COVID-19 cases reach new highs

Deaths increased to 13,149, after 54 more casualties were recorded on Friday, the health ministry said.

The capital region, a congested urban sprawl of 16 cities home to at least 13 million people, accounted for more than two-fifths of the COVID-19 cases.

A University of the Philippines research team had warned that COVID-19 infections may hit 10,000 to 11,000 a day by late March because the virus reproduction rate, which measures the number of people infected by each case, had increased.

"Rapid vaccination is a priority to reduce high numbers of deaths and pressure on struggling health systems," the World Bank said in a report on Friday.

But six of 10 Filipinos are unwilling to be vaccinated because of safety concerns, according to Pulse Asia's survey of 2,400 respondents between Feb. 22 and March 3. In a similar poll in November, only 47% said they would refuse a vaccination.

Pulse Asia said 94% of respondents were worried about contracting the virus.

The Philippines started its inoculation drive on March 1, with officials acknowledging the uphill struggle to persuade many to take it.

More than 508,000 people have so far been inoculated, or less than 1% of the 70 million target this year.

Strict and lengthy lockdowns have taken a huge toll on the Philippine economy, which contracted by a record 9.5% last year.

The World Bank cut its economic growth forecast for the Philippines to 5.5% this year from 5.9% previously.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty, Ed Davies and Susan Fenton)