BY GERARD NAVAL and WENDELL VIGILIA
TWO days into the reimposition of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in the “NCR Plus” bubble, the Department of Health yesterday said it has recommended a one-week extension.
President Duterte on Saturday put the National Capital Region and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal under strict quarantine from March 29 to April 4 to stop the surge of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the bubble.
In a television interview, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the DOH has recommended to the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) a full two-week period ECQ because “ideally, ECQ should be at least two weeks so that we can see the decline in the number of cases after the two weeks and the effect on our healthcare utilization rate.”
At the House of Representatives, Vergeire said there might be a need to extend the ECQ for another two weeks to see a significant decline in the number of COVID-19 cases.
“We may see a continuous decline of cases by further extending ECQ for more than two weeks or two more weeks as well as marked improvements in our minimum public health standard adherence and shortening the delays in the detection, testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine,” Vergeire told the House committee on health.
Vergeire made the statement a day after the DOH reported 10,016 new cases in the country, the highest single-day rise since the pandemic began last year. Yesterday, the health department said it recorded 9,296 new infections, excluding data from nine of 179 accredited COVID laboratories.
Vergeire told lawmakers there was a two-fold increase in the recent two weeks nationwide, while the Cagayan Valley region saw a four-fold increase in their number while averaging almost seven cases daily.
In Metro Manila, she said the cases have risen by more than four times and warned that “most regions follow this trend and are also showing increase in the number of cases.”
In her television interview, Vergeire said the country’s experience last year showed that a one-week ECQ is not enough to address the surge in cases.
“During the July and August surge, we have analyzed the figures and saw that cases still peaked 10 days after the lockdown, while the healthcare utilization rate peaked after two weeks of the lockdown. This means it will take a longer time to see the effects,” she explained.
Vergeire said the IATF has yet to give a decision on the matter as it is still waiting proof from the DOH on the necessity of extending the strict lockdown period.
“For the time being, as what we agreed at IATF-EID, we will assess at the end of the week so we will know if we will extend or just have stricter restrictions but the ECQ is lifted,” she said, adding: “We need to balance this with the economy. That’s why we need enough basis to have this extension.”
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the IATF will meet this weekend to discuss the DOH recommendation.
“Sa mga nagtatanong naman po kung mai-extend pa ang ECQ, pinag-iisipan po ito ng mabuti ng inyong IATF at sa Sabado nga po, Black Saturday, meron kaming muling pagpupulong para isa-pinal kung ano nga po ang mangyayari (For those asking if the ECQ will be extended, that will be discussed by the IATF. We will meet on Black Saturday to finalize what will happen),” Roque told an online Palace briefing.
Roque said an extension of the ECQ for one or two weeks will be an “absolute last resort” if cases still do not go down in the NCR Plus bubble.
The IATF will announce its recommendation either on Saturday or Sunday.
National Task Force chief Carlito Galvez Jr. said they will be inclined to recommend the extension if the case surge continues.
“Kapag lalong nag-spike pa, I think we will heed the recommendation of experts to extend the ECQ, kapag may continuous sharp increase at kapag hindi nagkaroon ng pag-plateau (If there is still a spike in COVID cases, I think we will heed the recommendation of experts to extend the ECQ, if there is a continuous sharp increase and if the number of cases do not plateau),” Galvez said.
Vergeire told the House panel that the daily tally of those who test positive for COVID-19 is expected to rise even more as the DOH will now include in the official count of confirmed cases individuals who will test positive in rapid antigen tests.
The DOH is currently only tallying COVID-19 confirmed cases based on RT-PCR tests, which remains the gold standard in testing.
Vergeire said the DOH will follow the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation to include those who test positive in antigen tests in areas where there are surges in infection such as Metro Manila and its four neighboring provinces.
“In our guidelines and based from WHO recommendation, when there are areas with increased incidents, or when there are outbreaks like what we are having right now, you can use the antigen test as confirmatory already. So we do not need any RT-PCR to confirm them,” Vergeire said.
She said the use of rapid antigen test for screening in areas where there are low COVID cases would still require confirmatory RT-PCR tests.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque said the figure will be used as part of the government’ outbreak response as he acknowledged that there is a “gap” in the policy, which prompted Rep. Stella Quimbo (LP, Marikina) to warn that COVID cases in the country could be underreported.
“This is something that is going to be addressed by the concerned office and the RITM which is our technical arm in terms of testing, we will get their recommendation with regard to your very well-taken point,” Duque told Quimbo.
In a pre-recorded public address that was aired Monday night, President Duterte announced the different quarantine classifications in the country for the month of April.
Duterte said the NCR Plus Bubble will remain under ECQ status until April 4, while Quirino province will be under modified ECQ from April 1 to 15, and the city of Santiago in Isabela under MECQ for the whole month of April.
Areas under the general community quarantine (GCQ) for the month of April are the Cordillera Administrative Region, the provinces of Cagayan, Isabela, and Nueva Vizcaya in the Cagayan Valley region; Batangas in the Southern Tagalog region, Tacloban City in Eastern Visayas, Iligan City in Northern Mindanao, Davao City in the Davao region, and Lanao del Sur in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The rest of the country will be under the modified GCQ. – With Raymond Africa