Experts see push to reopen economy as a factor in 7,999 new COVID-19 cases

By: Patricia Denise M. Chiu - Philippine Daily Inquirer | March 21,2021 - 07:38 AM

MANILA, Philippines — With a record 7,999 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, the Philippines for the second straight day exceeded the coronavirus infection numbers in August last year when health-care workers called for a “timeout.”

The Department of Health (DOH) report did not immediately say what parts of the country the cases came from.

The infections reported on Saturday brought the country’s total COVID-19 cases to 656,056, the DOH said.

It said the recoveries rose to 562,484 with the addition of 597 patients who had gotten well. But another 30 had died, raising the death toll to 12,930.

The recoveries and deaths brought the number of active cases to 80,642. Of these, 94.4 percent are mild, 3.1 percent asymptomatic, 0.9 percent critical condition, 1 percent severe and 0.53 percent moderate.

The DOH said it removed nine duplicates from the total case count, while 10 cases that were previously tagged as recoveries were reclassified as deaths after final validation.

The DOH on Saturday also said that of the 150 COVID-19 positive samples mostly from Metro Manila that were analyzed, 108, or 72 percent, were found to have two of the three globally recognized “variants of concern” (VOC) which are highly transmissible.

Of the total that was sequenced by the Philippine Genome Center (PGC), 46 were of the B.1.1.7, or United Kingdom variant, and 62 were of the B.1.351, or South African variant. Of the UK variant, 36 were from Metro Manila, where 41 of the South African variant also came from. In all, the PGC found 77, or 71.29 percent of the two VOC, in Metro Manila.

The surge has alarmed both the health sector and some lawmakers.

‘Complex scenario’

Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the World Health Organization’s country representative, to the Philippines on Friday said the spike in the number of cases was a “complex scenario,” which could have been influenced by possible “vaccine optimism” that caused a decrease in compliance to health standards, or by the spread of the more transmissible variants of the virus.

Public health experts, however, believe there may be other reasons.

Dr. Anthony Leachon, a former adviser to the National Task Force, against COVID-19 said he disagreed with Abeyasinghe.

He said poor decision-making on the part of the government, as well as an emphasis on reopening the economy fueled the current surge.

‘Set up to fail’

“Our economic managers set us up to fail,” Leachon said.

The country’s economic managers had pushed hard for the reopening of the economy—including opening malls and cinemas, as well as allowing minors age 10 to 15 to go out, despite coronavirus transmission remaining uncontrolled, Leachon said.

The loosening of regulations “set the people up to be lax,” he added.

“At the end of the day, these government officials blame the people for not following protocols, when they were the ones who set up the rules,” Leachon said.

He said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), the temporary government body overseeing the country’s response to the pandemic, was “not properly analyzing” the situation.

“It is ineptitude. The knowledge exists, but they failed to apply it correctly,” Leachon said.

He added that contrary to the DOH claim that the failure to adhere to minimum public health and safety standards was to blame for the increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, Leachon found that only those who do not have the capacity to follow break the rules.

Blaming people

“I have been saying provide masks to the poorest of the poor, because the only people who cannot follow are those who are unable to,” he said.

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his officials last week to distribute free masks to low-income citizens, more than a year after the pandemic started.

Dr. Inday Dans, a clinical epidemiologist and founding member of Health Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC), said it was “hard to pinpoint” the reasons for the surge, but the government had a “tendency to blame the people.”

The daily cases were averaging around 3,818 for a week before it jumped to 6,725 on Aug. 10, 2020. This prompted HPAAC and other health and medical organizations to call for a “timeout” to stop the spread of the virus and protect health workers.

These groups at that time proposed several courses of action to handle the surge, including putting up a one hospital command center, and one COVID-19 referral network for local governments.

They also called on the government to enforce workplace safety guidelines, provide transport safety rules and encourage active transport, such as biking, make the internet accessible to all, especially the poor, establish a social amelioration plan and strengthen the Health Technology Assessment Council.

However, months later, and after several meetings with officials, Dans said little progress had been made in realizing their proposals.

“They put up a One Hospital Command [Center], but it is not working. You call the number and they will tell you to inform them if you have found a hospital already, when it should be the other way around, they should be the ones telling the patients which hospitals still have vacancies,” she said.

Dans said the government “should make it easy for the public to follow policies.”

Open, closed spaces

“We’re calling for more open spaces, since studies show these really decrease infection risk. But instead of open areas, it is malls that were opened, in an effort to lift the economy. But those are closed spaces,” she said.

Reacting to the finding that two VOC were found in majority of positive cases in Metro Manila, both Dans and Leachon said the 150 samples were too small to make any conclusions.

“Unfortunately the Philippines has no funds to do bigger sample [sequencing,]” Dans said, suggesting pouring more government funds into the monitoring effort.

Leachon supported a call by the OCTA Research group for stricter implementation of community quarantine regulations and proposed taking a further step of imposing a “systemic lockdown” instead of just granular or localized lockdowns.

“In localized lockdowns, there is still mobility of people, what we need is a systemic one,” Leachon said, adding that the government should provide ‘ayuda,’ or economic subsidy, to those who will be affected.

“We need to realign the funds, the President has that particular power. There are no vaccines yet, the money that we borrowed for purchase should be used to provide ayuda so we can go on MECQ (modified enhanced community quarantine),” he said in Filipino.

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