Tens of thousands of people were being evacuated to safety in the southern and central Philippines on Thursday as a powerful typhoon approached and as authorities were warning the public to avoid crowds after the first infections caused by the omicron strain of the coronavirus were reported in the country, officials said.
Forecasters said they last tracked Typhoon Rai, which has sustained winds of 185 kilometers (115 miles) per hour and gusts of up to 230 kph (143 mph), about 175 kilometers (109 miles) east of southern Surigao del Norte province. It was blowing northwestward at 25 kph (15 mph). The typhoon, locally called Odette, was expected to slam into the Dinagat Islands in the country’s southeast later Thursday, forecasters said.
Several southern and central provinces were placed on typhoon alerts. Residents were warned to stay away from coastal and low-lying villages and other high-risk areas due to possible flash floods, landslides and tidal surges in or near the typhoon’s path.
The Philippine coast guard said it has prohibited sea voyages in high-risk regions, stranding nearly 4,000 passengers and ferry and cargo ship workers in dozens of southern and central ports. Coast guard personnel and boats have been placed on stand-by in case of contingencies, it said. Dozens of mostly domestic flights have been cancelled.
Tens of thousands of villagers have been moved in advance to emergency shelters, including schools, gymnasiums and other government buildings in voluntary or forced evacuations, officials said. The evacuations were complicating government efforts to discourage crowds after health officials this week detected the omicron variant in two travelers who arrived in the country from Japan and Nigeria.
The Philippines is among the hardest hit countries in Southeast Asia by the pandemic, with confirmed infections of more than 2.8 million and more than 50,000 deaths. Quarantine restrictions have been eased and more businesses have been allowed to reopen in recent weeks after an intensified vaccination campaign caused daily infections to dwindle to a few hundred from more than 26,000 during an alarming spike in September. The detection of the omicron cases this week, however, has set off new alarms and the government renewed calls for people to stay away from crowds and get vaccinated immediately.
Governor Ben Evardone of Eastern Samar province said he temporarily stopped vaccinations in his region of nearly half a million people due to the approaching typhoon. More than 70 percent of villagers in the province have received at least one vaccine shot each against COVID-19 and Evardone expressed concern over vaccination delays because some vaccines stored in Eastern Samar will expire in a few months.
He said overcrowding would be hard to avoid in the limited number of evacuation centers in his province, where more than 32,000 people have been moved to safety as the typhoon blew closer.
“It’s impossible to observe social distancing, it will really be tough,” Evardone told The Associated Press. “What we do is we cluster evacuees by families. We don’t mix different people in the same place as a precaution.”
About 20 storms and typhoons batter the Philippines each year. The archipelago is also located in the seismically active Pacific “Ring of Fire” region, making it one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world.