LAUREL, Philippines – Thousands of people were evacuated from villages around a rumbling volcano near the Philippine capital on Friday, but officials said they faced another dilemma to ensure shelters from emergencies do not turn into epicenters of COVID-19 infections.

The alert was raised to three on a five-level scale after Taal volcano threw a dark gray plume across the sky on Thursday. The five-minute steam and gas explosion was followed by four smaller emissions, but the volcano was generally calm on Friday, volcanologists said.

Level three means that “the magma is near or on the surface, and the activity could lead to a dangerous eruption within weeks,” according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. Level five means a potentially fatal eruption is occurring that could endanger communities.

The agency asked people to stay away from a small island in a picturesque lake where Taal is located and is considered a permanent danger zone with a number of nearby lakeside villages in the province. from Batangas to the south of Manila.

A Taal eruption last year displaced hundreds of thousands of people and briefly closed Manila International Airport. However, the head of the Volcanoes Agency, Renato Solidum, said it was too early to know whether the current unrest at the volcano will lead to a full-blown eruption.

Preventive evacuations that began Thursday evening involved residents of five high-risk villages in the lake towns of Laurel and Agoncillo.

More than 14,000 people may need to be temporarily removed from the volcano, said Mark Timbal, spokesman for the government disaster response agency.

In the town of Laurel, Imelda Reyes feared for her safety and that of her family in their home near the volcano and in the overcrowded primary school turned evacuation center where they took refuge on Friday.

“If we stay home, the volcano can explode at any time,” Reyes told The Associated Press. “But here, one sick person can infect all of us. Both are dangerous choices.

Reyes, who washes clothes and has four children, cried in despair when she said she and her husband, a corn farmer, wanted to leave the evacuation camp for a friend’s house in northern the province of Nueva Ecija, but lamented that they did not have money for the fare bus.

Most evacuation camps have set up isolation zones in case someone starts showing symptoms of COVID-19.

“It’s doubly difficult now. Previously we would just ask people to rush to the evacuation centers and sneak as much as possible, ”said disaster response officer Junfrance De Villa from the town of Agoncillo.

“Now we have to watch the numbers closely. We are doing everything to avoid traffic jams, ”De Villa told The Associated Press by telephone.

A nearby town safely away from the troubled volcano could accommodate up to 12,000 displaced residents of Agoncillo in the pre-pandemic times, but could only house half of them now. A laid-back city of over 40,000 residents, Agoncillo has reported more than 170 cases of COVID-19, but only about a dozen remain ill. At least 11 residents have died, he said.

An alarming rise in infections has started to ease in Manila and outlying areas. But daily cases remain high and lockdowns have been reimposed in several provinces that have reported spikes in cases.

President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration have come under fire for a vaccination campaign grappling with supply issues and public reluctance. After repeated delays, vaccinations began in March.

The 311-meter (1,020-foot) Taal, one of the world’s smallest volcanoes, erupted in January last year, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and sending clouds of ash to Manila , about 65 kilometers (40 miles) north, where the main airport was temporarily closed.

Heavy ash falls also buried an abandoned fishing community, which thrived for years in the shadow of Taal on an island in Lake Taal, and closed a popular area of ​​tourist lodges, restaurants, spas and of wedding venues.

The Philippines lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, an area prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. A long dormant volcano, Mount Pinatubo, exploded north of Manila in 1991 in one of the 20th century’s biggest volcanic eruptions, killing hundreds.

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Associated Press reporter Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.

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