Defense Secretary and National Task Force against COVID-19 chairman Delfin Lorenzana yesterday said Metro Manila and four nearby provinces are likely to transition to general community quarantine (GCQ) on August 19, citing a downward trend in reported new infections in these areas.
President Duterte had placed Metro Manila, Laguna, Cavite, Rizal and Bulacan under modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) from August 4 to 18 after medical society groups and health workers declared that the country was losing its fight against COVID-19 because healthcare systems are already overwhelmed.
Lorenzana said infection rate in the five areas has already been going down for the past several days.
“I think the trend is going down. Yesterday (Sunday), we have 3,000 cases already, down from 6,000 previously. So I think we are ready to go down. We cannot continue with the MECQ because we already know the areas where there is infestation. We’ll focus on these areas so that others can also go to work,” he said.
“We are doing well. If the trend continues, then we will be ready to go back to GCQ,” he also said, adding that the number of cases will likely go further down to about 1,500 to 2,000 in the coming days because of the stricter quarantine protocols.
Lorenzana said the total number of COVID-19 cases of over 130,000 may be alarming but the recovery rate is very high and the death rate is small. “If you look at those figures, I think we are doing well,” he said.
Lorenzana said the five areas can no longer afford to stay under MECQ because the strict lockdown is impacting negatively on the country’s central business district.
“Hindi pwedeng lockdown na lang tayo ng lockdown dahil nga baka mas marami pang mamatay sa gutom kesa sa COVID kung walang trabaho ang mga tao (We cannot keep on declaring lockdowns because more people may die due to hunger than COVID if people will have no jobs),” he said.
Lorenzana said the growing consensus among members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) is to lockdown streets, villages and barangays where there are pockets of outbreaks of COVID-19 cases.
“Wag na tayong mag-lockdown ng malalaking lugar tulad ng syudad o bayan, kundi i-identify natin kung ano ‘yung mga lugar na may outbreak. ‘Yung hindi apektado masyado, they can already go out and do their jobs. So ‘yun ang ating plano ngayon (We’re not going to lockdown big areas like cities or municipalities, but we’re going to identify areas where there are outbreaks. Areas that are not affected too much, they can already go out and do their jobs. That’s the plan now),” said Lorenzana.
On the possibility of Metro Manila, Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Rizal remaining under MECQ on August 19, Lorenzana said this is a possible scenario especially if daily COVID-19 cases in the areas climb to about 6,000 to 10,000.
“That means there is something wrong in the way the quarantine is being implemented so MECQ will have to be extended. But I am optimistic cases will further go down as we near August 18 so that we can go to GCQ by August 19,” he said.
The Department of Health (DOH) did not share Lorenzana’s optimism.
Health undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the DOH cannot yet say that the National Capital Region (NCR) is ready to shift to a less restrictive GCQ after August 18.
In a virtual press briefing, Vergeire said: “We will still have to look and evaluate the indicators. It’s difficult for us to give an assessment at this time.”
Aside from the number of COVID-19 cases, Vergeire said the DOH also use the capacity of the country’s healthcare system, efficacy of contact tracing efforts, as well as the implementation of localized lockdown as indicators.
“We also have to look at the capacity of our health system. When cases go down, are there enough beds in hospitals now? We also have to look at what is happening in communities.
Are they implementing a stricter lockdown, a better contact tracing?” she said.
“We have to look at all of those indicators before we can say we can ease restrictions and say we are making things better,” added Vergeire.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said that effects of the MECQ implementation in the NCR and its neighboring provinces is expected to be felt in “two to three weeks after its enforcement” especially since the incubation period for COVID-19 is from 14 days to 21 days.
“We just have to wait for that time to ascertain the health impact of the MECQ classification,” Roque said.
Roque said the government does not have to wait until the incubation period is completed before it decides on whether or not to extend the current MECQ for another 15 days.
He said that members of the IATF met in Davao on Monday to discuss the status of the quarantine classifications, including proposals to extend it until the end of the month.
“It entails a delicate balancing of protecting and saving people’s health to protecting and saving the economic health of the nation,” Roque said.
Experts and academes from the medical and scientific community are calling for an extension of the MECQ for another 15 days to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Dr. Tony Leachon, former adviser of National Task Force against Covid19 Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez. Jr. said extending the MECQ is needed to improve the current health care capacity in the country and eventually flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Dr. Guido David, a member of the University of the Philippines’ OCTA Research team, said the implementation of the MECQ in Metro Manila in particular had showed a decline in the reproduction number of COVID-19 in the region which is now between 1.1 percent and 1.2 percent from 1.5 percent before the stricter quarantine rook effect last August 4.
“Nakita natin na nag-i-improve iyung trend ngayon sa Pilipinas, sa NCR. Mukhang marami pa ring (cases) pero actually bumabababa na iyung tinatawag na reproduction number.
Bumagal na ang transmission rate (We saw an improvement in the trend in the Philippines, in NCR. It looks like there are still many cases but there is actually a decrease in what we call then reproduction number…a slowdown in transmission rate),” he said.
David said if the downward trend continue, it can lead to a flattening of the curve similar to what happened in Cebu City when it was placed under stricter quarantine for a month or a two.
He said from about 300 COVID cases a day, Cebu City is now down to about 100 a day, and its COVID reproduction number is now at 0.7 percent. – With Gerard Naval and Jocelyn Montemayor