MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte may announce the quarantine classifications for May during his public address on Wednesday, Malacañang said Monday, as it maintained that the government is handling the new COVID-19 variants “rather well” despite the continuous rise in the number of infections.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said members of the government’s pandemic task force are scheduled to meet Monday to decide on the recommendation to be presented to the president.
“While there will be appeals, I think the recommendation will be submitted to the president because May 1 is approaching and the (president’s) ‘Talk to the People’ will be on Wednesday so it is possible that the president will announce it,” Roque said at a press briefing.
The Department of Health announced 8,929 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the total cases since the pandemic reached the Philippines last year to 1,006,428.
The healthcare capacity as well as the two-week and daily attack rates would be considered in the decision on quarantine restrictions, Roque added.
Metro Manila and the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal — collectively known as National Capita Region Plus — were placed under the strictest enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) from March 29 to April 11 to stem the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases and to prevent the overwhelming of hospitals.
NCR Plus, home to more than 20 million people and contributor of nearly half of the country’s economic output, was downgraded to the more relaxed modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) last April 12 partly because of the willingness of some hospitals to allocate more facilities for COVID-19 patients.
Under ECQ, strict home quarantine is enforced and people can only go out to access goods and services. The restriction, however, does not cover individuals who work in sectors that are allowed to operate. Only selected establishments and industries like hospitals, food production, delivery services transporting essential goods, banks, utilities and telecommunication firms can operate.
More businesses can operate under MECQ but flexible work arrangements like work-from-home are still encouraged. Gatherings are permitted but only up to 10% of the venue capacity can be filled up.
Experts have urged the government to extend the implementation of MECQ in NCR Plus to sustain the decrease in the COVID-19 reproduction rate, or the number of people that a person who caught COVID-19 can infect.
Roque said the public should not just look at the total number of people who contracted the virus.
“For me, let’s not just look at the total figures, let’ s look at the number of recoveries, which is almost 900,000 and our case fatality rate which is lower than the world average of 2.1,” the Palace spokesman said.
“So I don’t think it is a negative reflection. On the other hand, because of the world ranking, we can see that we are managing still the new variants rather well,” he added.
Citing data from the Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization COVID-19 dashboard, Roque said the Philippines is 26th in the world in terms of total cases and 27th in terms of active cases. The country ranked 90th in terms of case fatality with 1.7%, he added.
Roque said the COVID-19 reproduction number has dropped to 0.9151, a development he attributed to the tighter quarantine measures enforced in the NCR Plus.
“Because of the huge decrease in our R naught (reproduction number), we can say that the two-week ECQ and two-week MECQ seemed to have worked,” he said.
“We have lowered the R naught to less than one but we have to ensure that the gains of ECQ and MECQ will be wasted. We can achieve this if the local governments provide the right answers to the PDITR (prevention, detection, isolation and treatment),” he added.
Dr. John Wong of health policy think tank EpiMetrics said several indicators have to be examined if the NCR Plus is ready for a downgrade to a more lenient general community quarantine (GCQ). Under GCQ, about half of industries can operate.
He said one of the indicators is the reproduction number, which he described as “backward looking” because it reflects the cases logged over the past two weeks.
“So it doesn’t tell us how well we will do in the future under GCQ…So R naught is not enough,” Wong said.
Wong said the forward-looking indicators include how well people are complying with masking and social distancing, how fast people with symptoms are identified, and how fast are they being tested, isolated, and quarantined. He said local governments should also determine what percent of cases and close contacts were able to complete their isolation and quarantine periods.
Wong also cited the need to determine how well indoor businesses are observing ventilation, masking, and physical distancing and how cast can the country increase the pace of vaccination to 350,000 shots per day.
“Right now, without seeing any indicators, I would not recommend it. So it’s like driving, I mean, you have to check first whether your car is in good working condition, before you undertake a long trip or move forward,” Wong said.
Roque said a shift to GCQ is possible if the 350,000 shots per day is attained and if local governments can comply with the indicators identified by Wong.
“Our objective is total health. We will look at the number of people who are sick, how many have died, how many died of other causes or perhaps because of the additional burden caused by the lockdown,” he said.
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