March COVID cases surpass July ‘20 peak

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    A policeman and a barangay official manning a barricade in Barangay 696 in Malate, Manila, one of 16 barangays under lockdown. PHOTO BY RHOY COBILLA

    WITH a record-high of 8,019 new cases last Monday, the country has surpassed the July 2020 peak of COVID-19 infections, with most of the cases coming from Metro Manila (National Capital Region) and Calabarzon (Region 4A), the Department of Health said yesterday.

    In July 2020, there were 28,000 cases a week. The average this month is 40,000 cases a week, according to the DOH Epidemiology Bureau.

    “We have surpassed the peak that we saw last July, with cases coming mostly from NCR and Region 4-A,” Dr Alethea de Guzman, director of the DOH Epidemiology Bureau.

    “Nationally, cases continue to increase at a faster rate,” she also said.
    De Guzman said all cities and municipality in Metro Manila are at “high risk” in terms of growth in cases.

    In the past two weeks, the DOH said NCR saw 16,843 new COVID-19 cases, which is 137 percent higher than four weeks ago.

    It is even compounded by the region’s 14.9 average daily attack rate per 100,000 population.

    “Recent NCR cases have set a new peak. All NCR areas peak are higher than last year,” De Guzman said.

    Five other regions, she added, are also considered to be at “moderate risk” after seeing increases in cases.

    The five are Cagayan Valley (108%), Central Luzon (125%), Calabarzon (165%), Western Visayas (14%), and Caraga (12%).

    The independent OCTA Research Team said the COVID-19 surge is what makes his group doubt what the two-week bubble imposed in the NCR and the four neighboring provinces of Cavite, Rizal, Bulacan and Laguna can achieve.

    “We may have a difficult time (reversing this surge) because there is so much momentum.

    We were not expecting that it will have this kind of momentum and have this a spread this serious,” said OCTA Research Team fellow Prof. Ranjit Rye in a televised public briefing.

    And in the event that the “NCR Plus bubble” fails to meet its goal, Rye said it may require the imposition of a “soft” modified enhance community quarantine (MECQ) to stop the rapid spread.

    “If it continues to surge after next week, we may need to rethink our strategy and impose a stricter quarantine classification,” said Rye.

    “What we are proposing is a soft MECQ. An MECQ, where businesses are open, has transportation, workers can go to work. That is our last resort if these current intervention of the government does not work,” he added.

    In contrast to the surge in cases, the DOH noted that there is already a decline in COVID-19 deaths for March.

    “Deaths have continued to decline with 10 deaths per day over March,” said De Guzman, adding that this is a far cry from the 67 deaths per day back in August 2020, and the 60 daily deaths in September 2020.

    De Guzman, however, stressed that such a decline is not a reason to become complacent.
    “We need to monitor if the case surge will lead to higher care fatality rate,” said de Guzman.

    COVID-19 VARIANTS

    Corollary to the increase in COVID-19 cases, the DOH reported that the COVID-19 variants are already in nine regions of the Philippines: the UK variant is already in Ilocos Region (1), Cordillera Administrative Region (41), and Western Visayas (1); and the South Africa variant has been detected in Cagayan Valley (1), and Soccsksargen (2).

    Having both variants are Central Luzon (4 UK, 1 South Africa); NCR (76 UK, 105 South Africa); Calabarzon (5 UK, 3 South Africa); and Northern Mindanao (1 UK, 1 South Africa).

    “If an LGU detects a variant, there must be additional response, such as making sure there is third generation contact tracing,” said De Guzman.

    She also noted that 85 COVID-19 variants have also been detected among returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs).

    “We need to be vigilant over our ROFs because there is continued increase in the variants among them. It comprises 23 percent of the tested samples,” she said.

    Earlier, the DOH already acknowledged that the presence of the COVID-19 variants have contributed to the recent surge in cases.

    RELIGIOUS ACTIVITIES

    Presidential spokesman Harry Roque yesterday said the Roman Catholic Church has agreed to abide by the resolution of the Inter Agency Task Force on the Management of Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) not to hold any religious worship activities until Easter Sunday.

    Roque, in a radio interview, said this was the message relayed to him by Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who is in-charge of religious groups.

    “I received a text message from Sec. Meynard who is in-charge of religious groups. He said churches will remain closed. There was a bishop who said that they will open in a 10 percent capacity. But that was clarified after he talked with the Catholic Church organization, and not only with one bishop, they said they will follow the IATF resolution,” Roque said.

    Roque had earlier warned the state will not hesitate to use its police power and order churches closed after Bishop Broderick Pabillo insisted the Archdiocese of Manila will open its religious worship activities to up to 10 percent of its church capacity, but no parishioners will be allowed to stay outside the churches.

    Pabillo said they have decided to push through with public religious activities because they did not agree with the IATF’s Resolution No. 104 which banned mass gatherings, including religious activities, in Metro Manila, Cavite, Bulacan, Rizal and Laguna from March 22 to April 4 as the government imposed stricter quarantine regulations to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

    Roque, in the radio interview, said Church leaders have also agreed not to hold religious activities even on open spaces.

    “So, wala na pong problema doon sa dalawang bishop na nagsalita, they will comply (So, there will no longer be any problems, even the two bishops who earlier said that they will still open, because they will already comply),” he added.

    But contrary to Roque’s pronouncement, Pabillo yesterday remained unfazed over his threat to use police powers if the church insists on opening despite the two-week ban.

    In an interview, Pabillo said he is not cowed by the statements of Roque as they believe that the limited capacity of churches cannot be constituted as mass gatherings.

    “No fear about Malacañang. Ten percent of church capacity is not mass gathering. That is where they (Malacañang) are good at: giving threats,” said Pabillo.

    In a separate statement, Pabillo insisted that their instructions to churches under the Archdiocese of Manila are not intended to defy the State’s guidelines because the directives only aim to underscore the importance of the religious sector in the lives of the faithful.

    “We assert our right to worship and the state should respect this and not unnecessarily hamper it. Religious activities are essential services for the well-being of people,” he said.

    “The state regulatory bodies should consult the sectors concerned when making policies about them. I lament the fact that the religious sectors are not represented, nor even consulted, when they make policies affecting our life of worship,” added Pabillo.

    Pabillo issued a Pastoral Instruction on Tuesday that provides that churches may still accept churchgoers up to 10 percent of their capacity. In his statement, Pabillo clarified that the guidelines are not mandatory for parish priests to comply.

    Rather, he cited the adherence to the “principle of subsidiarity”, which means that the decisions are ultimately done on the ground by the parishes.

    “The parish priests, in consultation with their lay leaders, will decide whether they will have their religious activities, with the people, but not beyond the 10 percent capacity of their churches, or do them in other forms, depending on their local conditions,” he stressed.

    The Archdiocese of Manila consists of the cities of Manila, Makati, San Juan, Mandaluyong, and Pasay.

    BUBBLE TRAP

    The Department of Transportation warned health protocols and travel restrictions would be strictly enforced during the Holy Week break for residents of Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal.

    DOTR Undersecretary Artemio Tuazon Jr. said people inside the NCR Plus bubble will not be allowed to go on road trips of any kind until the travel restrictions are lifted.

    Speaking on public briefing Laging Handa, the transportation official said only authorized persons outside of their residence (APORs) as defined by health officials would be allowed to enter or leave the general community quarantine (GCQ) bubble.

    “These are our essential workers, health and emergency frontline personnel, government officials and workers, authorized workers, those who need to travel for medical reasons, those who are going to the airport for travel abroad, returning overseas Filipino workers and those who are going home,” Tuazon said.

    While there will be no reduction of public transport units on the road or of passenger capacity, Tuazon said Secretary Arthur Tugade has ordered a no-nonsense enforcement of health protocols inside public utility vehicles.

    He reminded bus and passenger jeepney operators that Memorandum 2020-061 of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) remains in effect requiring regular and thorough disinfection of all PUVs as an additional condition for their operating permits.

    Compliance is being monitored by the LTFRB and the Land Transportation Office (LTO) although acknowledging manpower shortage in both agencies, Tuazon said the DOTR has likewise sought the assistance of the PNP and concerned local government units.

    As an additional layer of enforcement, he appealed to the riding public to report non-compliant PUVs to the DOTR, the LTFRB or the LTO.

    “We are appealing for assistance from the public to help us monitor violators. This will help keep all of us safe. We encourage people to be vigilant for public safety,” he said.

    Tuason however offered a consolation for those whose travel plans were ruined by the GCQ bubble saying the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) have ordered shipping companies and airlines to accommodate rebooking or

    refunds without additional charges.
    The Supreme Court yesterday extended the alternative work arrangements in trial courts in Metro Manila and the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite until April 16.

    Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez said courts in these areas are now mandated to implement a skeleton work force from March 24 to April 16 in compliance with the guidance issued by Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta to “drastically reduce the court personnel” in all courts and offices in the NCR Plus bubble areas. – With Raymond Africa, Peter Tabingo and Ashzel Hachero