One question is sweeping Metro Manila these days: Will the national capital of nearly 13 million people transition away from General Community Quarantine (GCQ) after June 15?
The question chases reports from the Department of Health, which registered 280 “fresh cases” of COVID-19 in the Philippines as of Tuesday, with total recorded cases reaching nearly 23,000 and deaths now recorded at 1,011, and 4,637 recoveries—and the numbers are rising.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said quarantine restrictions in the National Capital Region (NCR) could also be tightened and extended to June 30 by the government's Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases on COVID-19, depending on doubling rate and healthcare capacity.
READ: Air pollution levels rising anew as NCR enters GCQ
Given these figures, Malacanang said the government might keep Metro Manila under GCQ until the end of June if coronavirus infections in the metropolis continue to rise.
"All the decisions of the IATF, whether or not to graduate to the next regime, in the case of Metro Manila to MGCQ (modified general community quarantine), is always dependent on data," Roque told a Palace press briefing.
According to Roque, who is also IATF spokesman, if Metro Manila would continue to see a rise in infections, further easing of restrictions might be unlikely.
“If the trend continues, either we continue on under GCQ or we could go back to modified GCQ. All classifications are flexible, depending on the data,” he said.
“Fresh cases” of COVID-19 have been averaging more than 300 daily for the last three days, higher than previous weeks, but it does not mean a spike in the actual number of cases, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a media briefing.
“Our fresh cases really are increasing in the past days,” Vergeire said. “But we can’t say these are actual fresh cases because the date of the release of test results is actually far from the recorded date of the onset of illness.”
The health department started re-classifying additional cases into “fresh cases” and “late cases” in late May to distinguish those that are only being reported now because of delayed validation.
The DOH said fresh cases referred to patients whose test results were released and subsequently validated in the last three days, while late cases referred to patients whose test results were released more than three days ago but validated only recently.
President Rodrigo Duterte is set to meet with the IATF in his hometown Davao City on Thursday to decide on fresh quarantine protocols for the June 16-30 period.
Of the 280 fresh cases reported by the DOH yesterday, 61 are from the National Capital Region, 82 are from Region 7, and 115 are from other regions. There are also 22 Filipino repatriates.
This was the fifth straight day that fresh cases from Region 7 or Central Visayas exceeded that of NCR.
Late cases for Tuesday reached 238, which brings the total additional cases to 518, raising the total coronavirus cases in the country to 22,992, according to the Department of Health.
At the same time, the DOH reported the number of healthcare workers who have contracted the coronavirus disease has reached 2,736 as of June 7.
In its COVID-19 report on Monday, the DOH said 1,589 of these health workers recovered from the respiratory illness. The death toll has remained at 32 since May 29.
The DOH said the other 1,115 medical workers were active cases undergoing treatment or quarantine.
Of this number, 990 are mild cases, 124 are asymptomatic, while one is in severe condition.
Health workers account for 12 percent of the total infections nationwide.
But health authorities said the fresh cases might include testing backlogs and patients who sought medical help much later.
Vergeire said this was because the date of the onset of illness of the fresh cases were far from the release date of test results.
READ: PH infections top 22k, more easing up set
This is why, she claimed, the recent increase in cases may not mean that the virus is spreading further in the country.
Vergeire said DOH’s experts on data analytics were already studying the figures to help the IATF come up with its decisions on whether to further relax restrictions in Metro Manila and other parts of the country.
Metro Manila and other earlier hotspots are now under GCQ, where businesses have been allowed to reopen and public transport have resumed limited operations. The rest of the country is under modified GCQ.
Worldwide, people who contracted the COVID-19 virus reached 7.1 million on Tuesday, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus dashboard. Of this number, almost 3.3 million have recovered while 406,000 have died.
Meanwhile, the DOH is tracing the date of onset of illness in patients positive for COVID-19 as the number of fresh coronavirus cases reported this week increased.
Vergeire was responding to questions if the rising number of fresh cases—meaning those samples from patients whose results were released by the laboratories in three days—equate to the rising COVID-19 cases amid the easing of quarantine measures nationwide.
“We have to be cautious in interpreting our data. We also have to look at the weakness of our information system...There has been an increase in the past few days, but this could be a function of reporting (on the part of laboratories) because our timeline begins from the time the results are released,” Vergeire said.
Vergeire earlier said the varying capacity of laboratories processing COVID-19 tests, which are experiencing shortage in supplies and manpower, greatly affects their ability to report COVID-19 cases in real time.
DOJ employees positive
Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Tuesday revealed that 40 employees of the Department of Justice were tested positive after being subjected to rapid anti-body testing for coronavirus disease, prompting him to seriously consider suspending the work at the DOJ.
Guevarra said there were 40 DOJ employees tested positive as of Tuesday, but these were through rapid test only. “They will still be subjected to a more reliable swab test,” he added.
The numbers of DOJ employees who tested positive in the rapid test rose from the initial three, comprising of two security guards and one from maintenance, to 40.
According to the DOJ chief, they have disinfected the DOJ premises to prevent other employees from being infected with the virus.
“We've disinfected the premises over the weekend, and we'll do it all over again. We will also decide if we need to suspend all work on site in the meantime,” Guevarra said.
The DOJ had also sought the help of the Chinese General Hospital and requested that they conduct rapid test on their other employees.
The Palace reiterated that motorcycle backriding, horse racing and cockfighting remained prohibited in areas under community quarantine to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Duterte’s spokesman Roque also said this coming Independence Day celebration on June 12, only 10 people will be allowed to attend the ceremony as part of the health protocols being observed amid the COVID 19 pandemic.
The latest decision on the quarantine restrictions on amusement games and June 12 occasion was reached during a meeting of the IATF, Roque told a news briefing on nationwide television.
Roque also warned local government officials of possible administrative charges should they allow motorcycle backriding in their respective areas while the country was still under community quarantine.
“Horse racing is still not allowed. Cockfighting is also prohibited. Although the IATF gave the approval for the celebration on June 12, the participants must be limited to 10 persons,” he added.
At present, amusement, gaming, and fitness establishments, as well as those in the kids and the tourism industries are still not allowed to operate in areas under GCQ like Metro Manila.
Outdoor non-contact sports and other forms of exercise such as walking, jogging, running, biking, golf, swimming, tennis, badminton, equestrian, range shooting, and skateboarding however are allowed, subject to minimum health standards in GCQ areas.
At the same time, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said other industries still prohibited to operate in GCQ are gyms/fitness studios and sports facilities, cinemas, theaters, karaoke bars, libraries, cultural centers, museums, beaches, water parks and other tourist destinations, travel agencies, tour operators, personal care services such as massage parlors, sauna and facial care; pet grooming services, internet shops, and education centers like testing centers, review centers, language, driving, dance/acting/voice schools.
Mass gatherings such as movie screenings, concerts, sporting events, and other entertainment activities, religious services, and work conferences shall be allowed provided that participants shall be limited to 50 percent of the seating or venue capacity in places under MGCQ.
Meanwhile, the Department of Interior and Local Government said chiefs of police could now issue travel passes, which would cut down bureaucracy as the Philippines restarts its economy under relaxed restrictions imposed during the lockdown.
Those who want to cross checkpoints were previously required to coordinate with the police, which will then inform their regional counterparts and the local governments responsible for issuing travel authority.