The country is already dealing with the second wave of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)—and approaching a third wave—as health officials consider the first wave as the initial introduction of the virus by three Chinese nationals in January, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Duque also told the senators that preparations were already underway to mitigate the possible next surge in the number of infections.
“The first wave was small. Now we’re on the second wave and we’re doing what we can to flatten the epidemic curve,” Duque said in Filipino.
“The worst case scenario here is that we will have a repeat of outbreaks, and we’ll have what is called a second wave —actually we’re on the 3rd wave. It will depend on the number of cases in the different areas,” the Department of Health chief told the panel in replying to a query from Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian.
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Secretary Carlito Galvez, chief implementer of the national policy against COVID-19, told the same hearing that efforts to flatten the curve were effective, with the number of new cases averaging from 150 to 200 a day, with mortality rates declining.
“This means we’ve stabilized the situation,” Galvez said.
He added that testing capacity is continuously being improved.
But the DOH on Wednesday reported 279 new cases, bringing the total number of infections to 13,221, with nearly 9,500 active cases.
Five new deaths brought total fatalities to 842, while 89 new recoveries brought the number of patients who recovered from COVID-19 to 2,932.
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For medical experts, however, the Philippines is still dealing with the first or current stream of COVID-19 infections.
“We’ve never flattened anything yet,” Dr. Benjamin Co, a specialist on pediatric infectious diseases who has been monitoring the country’s epidemiological curves based on daily government data, told ABS-CBN News. “We’re still dealing with the first wave.”
This next phase in a pandemic comes only with “humongous outbreaks,” and after the first wave of infections has come under control, Co added.
Senator Risa Hontiveros also expressed doubt about the government claims that it is flattening the curve of COVID-19 cases.
"We have to be honest. There must be a complete and reliable data," said the senator during the Senate Committee of the Whole hearing Wednesday.
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Hontiveros cited a study from Johns Hopkins University stating that "flattening the curve involves reducing the number of new COVID-19 cases from one day to the next. This helps prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed."
The senator said that if that decrease in cases is how we can measure the “flattening of the curve,” then the DOH should also communicate if the country indeed is experiencing a decrease in the number of new cases daily.
"It's a simple measure that is also easily understandable by many. We need to be consistent in our data, and more importantly, in the data, we relay to the public,” she said. “It is confusing if we have different measures of success.”
President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, expressed confidence that a vaccine for COVID-19 would be available to all Filipinos by early 2021, as the government would purchase it as soon as it is developed.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said that clinical trials for an experimental vaccine being developed by the United States’ biotech firm Moderna, Inc. were showing “positive” results.
This developed as Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that the University of the Philippines-National Institutes of Health (UP-NIH) had recalled its locally-made coronavirus test kits over “very minor” defects.
During an online media forum, Vergeire said the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) saw the defects, which she didn't specify, when the test kits were sent for validation.
The kits were recalled so the UP experts could correct them, Vergeire said.
Roque reiterated that the government is ready to implement an immunization plan once a COVID-19 vaccine is developed.
“We have come up with a concrete plan as to how we will implement the vaccination program as soon as the crisis is over,” he said.
Roque said the government would give priority to individuals who belong to the vulnerable sector, such as senior citizens and individuals with health risks.
“We’re praying that first and foremost, we will have a vaccine, and second, we’re praying that all can avail of it,” Roque said in a radio interview.
He said the vaccine would be offered free to the disadvantaged.
There is currently no cure or vaccine for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Roque said the government has no plan yet to reinforce an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in some areas after quarantine protocols were eased and allowed some establishments to reopen.
The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) placed the National Capital Region and other provinces under a modified enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and general community quarantine (GCQ) on May 16.
Roque said if the COVID 19 cases continue to rise, the IATF may reconsider placing some areas under lockdown, adding it would take at least 14 days for symptoms of the virus to appear in infected persons.
“It is too early because we know that there is a 14-day incubation period before we find out how many more are getting infected after they started flocking to malls,” Roque said.
The Palace appealed to the public to stay home unless it is necessary to go out, stressing that opening up malls and other industries does not mean that the COVID-19 threat no longer exists.
Duterte, in a public address late Tuesday night, warned of a return to ECQ should the rate of infection speed up.
Meanwhile, the presidential adviser for entrepreneurship said the private sector will lead a study to determine the infection rate of COVID-19 in Metro Manila and Laguna.
During a press briefing Wednesday, Joey Concepcion said the zero prevalence test is part of the private sector-led Project ARK (antibody rapid test kits) initiative in coordination with National Policy Against Covid-19 deputy chief implementer Vivencio Dizon, Metro Manila mayors, and the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA).
A prevalence test would determine the number of infected people in a particular population at a given time.
“So every month, we will see if we are improving—if the level of infection is increasing or declining,” Concepcion said.
He said the study will be done for four months.
“The 16 cities of NCR (National Capital Region) plus Laguna will be taking this part of study (so) that we will measure the level of infection using rapid test kits. This is going to be supervised by PSRC (Philippine Survey and Research Center) research firm,” he added.
Also on Wednesday, Duque said six hospitals that allegedly refused patients needing medical treatment have been sent show-cause orders.
“The DOH is investigating these hospitals and has sent show-cause orders asking them to explain,” Duque said in Filipino. So far, only three hospitals have sent letters of explanation, he added.
The DOH’s health facilities oversight board will convene on Thursday to deliberate the criminal and administrative sanctions that can be meted out against erring hospitals who refuse to treat patients.
In April, a 65-year-old man who had difficulty breathing died at home in Nueva Ecija after being refused by different hospitals.
President Rodrigo Duterte had earlier warned against neglecting patients needing medical attention amid the COVID-19 health emergency.
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