THE Department of Health (DOH) yesterday said it would be premature to downgrade the lockdown classification of the National Capital Region (NCR) to modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) given the growing threat of the United Kingdom (UK) variant of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Saying that the new variant poses a whole different challenge to the public, especially in the NCR which is the epicenter of the COVID-19 health crisis, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said: “We have this new variant that supposedly has higher transmissibility. Until we can determine and prove that the UK variant is still confined in just one area and is not spread in the whole country, this will pose a threat to any region.”
Vergeire said the DOH will present this position when they meet with the rest of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) to discuss the new quarantine classifications for February.
“We believe that the IATF considers several factors. So, for us, the threats are higher transmissibility, higher cases, and in the event that the UK variant is found in Metro Manila,” said Vergeire.
Earlier, the independent OCTA Research Team noted that the NCR was able to avert having a post-holiday surge in COVID-19 cases.
The research group noted that the reproduction number (R0) in the NCR is at 1.08, as of January 23, while the positivity rate in the NCR has remained at 4 percent.
Also, the OCTA said there have been no significant changes in the number of new COVID-19 cases in the NCR.
The IATF-EID is set to meet this week to decide on the new quarantine status for the different parts of the country for February.
Taguig Mayor Lino Cayetano said Metro Manila mayors want the NCR to remain under general community quarantine next month.
Metro mayors met on Tuesday night to discuss if the metropolis should remain under general community quarantine or not. Cayetano said they were briefed by “experts” during their meeting.
“So for now, there is no recommendation yet for March. The better the numbers the more liberal, if the numbers are worse, we will be stricter, but so far so good,” said Cayetano.
Jojo Garcia, spokesman of the MMC and general manager of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, said the region’s 17 mayors will focus their efforts on establishing their respective vaccination programs in anticipation of the vaccines that the national government is expecting to arrive in batches beginning next month.
“We all know that these vaccines are sensitive and will require proper handling and storage,” he said.
In a related development, Vergeire assailed individuals, including celebrities, who hold mass gatherings, such as birthday parties, despite existing prohibitions.
“The DOH reiterates that mass gatherings are still prohibited under existing quarantine guidelines. IATF protocols are clear in saying mass gatherings are prohibited. In GCQ areas, as well as MGCQ areas, they are only allowed a certain number of individuals,” Vergeire said, adding that violators should be held accountable as provided by law.
On the other hand, the health department appealed to local government units to strictly implement existing protocols in their respective areas.
Vergeire’s statement came after photos and videos of the party organized by social media personality Tim Yap in a hotel in Baguio City went viral on social media, with guests seen not observing minimum health protocols. The incident is already being investigated by the Department of Tourism and the Baguio City police.
Baguio City mayor and contact tracing czar Benjamin Magalong said he and his wife were among those who attended Yap’s birthday party.
Prior to the January 17 party at The Manor at Camp John Hay, Magalong said Yap attended an art exhibit and bought many paintings of local artists who he said are suffering from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He called me and asked if I could attend (the party). So, I and my wife went (to the party) to thank them,” said Magalong.
Magalong said he and wife wore mask during the party, except while dining. “And there were also picture taking. Of course, maybe due to excitement, some removed their masks during the picture taking,” he said, adding that some guests also took off their face masks when they danced with the cultural dancers.
Magalong said they tried their best to implement the health standards. “We reminded everyone we have to wear a mask, we reminded some of the guests. If you are going to see it, many of them were actually compliant,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Department of Tourism announced it has launched an investigation on the party after a video of the gathering went viral on the social media. The hotel may be penalized if found at fault, the DOT said.
Magalong admitted that minimum health standards were violated during the party, saying that “even my wife violated it because she took off her mask during picture taking.”
“We are just human that sometimes when are just so engaged in one particular activity, we’re happy, we’ll sometimes forget the protocols,” he said.
Magalong said Yap called him yesterday to apologize for the development.
“I told him ‘don’t worry about it, you know with the help you made for Baguio City, promoting it and saying good words about Baguio, you helped our artists, we’re considering all these’,” Magalong said.
Magalong said the city is conducting its own probe on the incident. “This is something that is being investigated by our legal officer, it commenced yesterday,” he said. – With Noel Talacay and Victor Reyes