Dozens of doctors’ groups on Saturday warned the Philippines was losing the coronavirus fight, calling for a “timeout” and urging President Rodrigo Duterte to tighten a recently eased lockdown to an Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) as cases surged and hospitals turned away patients.
Eighty medical associations representing tens of thousands of doctors signed the open letter, a day after the country posted a record single-day count of more than 4,000 new infections, pushing the total past 93,000.
“Healthcare workers are united in sounding off a distress signal to the nation—our healthcare system has been overwhelmed,” said the letter addressed to Duterte, COVID-19 chief implementor Carlito Galvez Jr. and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
“We are waging a losing battle against COVID-19, and we need to draw up a consolidated, definitive plan of action.”
Philippine Medical Association (PMA) president Dr. Jose Santiago read the statement during an online press conference headed by the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) on Saturday morning.
“We propose that the ECQ be used as a timeout to refine our pandemic control strategies addressing the following urgent conditions or problems: hospital workforce efficiency; failure of contact tracing and quarantine; transportation safety; workplace safety; public compliance with self-protection; social amelioration,” Santiago read.
“Our health workers should not bear the burden of deciding who lives and who dies. If the health system collapses, it is ultimately our poor who are most compromised. In the end, winning the war against COVID-19 relies heavily on being able to keep our health system capacitated to address the needs of all Filipinos,” the letter added.
In response, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said the government was balancing the health and economy of the nation.
“The strict lockdown in Metro Manila has served its purpose, and we need to intensify other strategies,” he added.
Malacañang, reacting to the warning, said Duterte “has heard the concerns of the medical community and the Chief Executive has directed the Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) to act on these concerns immediately.”
In a statement, Roque said: “The Palace considers our skilled, tireless and dedicated healthcare workers as important frontliners in the battle against COVID-19.
“We are grateful for their immense contributions to heal our people and our nation during these difficult times. Your voices have been heard. We cannot afford to let down our modern heroes. This is our commitment.”
Roque, replying to questions, said the suggestion to put Metro Manila under ECQ would be discussed by the IATF again.
Roque said the country could have recorded 3.5 million infections or more if the government had not taken the necessary steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
He said the government was taking into consideration the recommendations of various stakeholders to stop the further transmission of the coronavirus disease in the country.
“All proposals to boost the fight against COVID-19 are welcome,” Roque said, in response to health and medical groups led by PCP vice president Dr. Maricar Limpin, who called on the government to return Metro Manila to an ECQ.
An increasing number of health workers have fallen ill or quit their jobs, while some packed hospitals are now refusing to admit new patients, it added.
The government has blamed poor compliance with health protocols for the sharp increase in infections.
The country imposed one of the harshest lockdowns in the world in mid-March that kept people at home except to buy food and seek health treatment.
But the government recently loosened the restrictions to allow people to return to work after predictions that the Philippine economy will fall into recession, with millions of jobs already lost.
In the open letter, doctors urged Duterte to put the capital Manila and surrounding provinces back under ECQ until August 15 to give the country time to “refine our pandemic control strategies.”
Health department officials earlier this week acknowledged hospital bed availability was drying up and the government has had limited success in hiring new doctors, nurses and other health care workers.
The letter said contact tracing was “failing miserably” and public transport and workplace settings were often unsafe.
Lei Alfonso, an official of the Philippine Society of Public Health Physicians, told a news conference on Saturday that the developments “will push us to the brink to become the next New York City, where COVID-19 patients die at home or (on) stretchers.”
Duterte on Thursday called on Filipinos to keep faith in his ability to swiftly procure a vaccine to be produced by China, where the coronavirus was believed to have had its epicenter, a key supporter of his rule.
Roque said the extension of general community quarantine in Metro Manila until August 15 had been a subject of debate and discussion by the members of the IATF.
“The Palace understands the delicate balancing act between public health and the economic health of the nation given that Metro Manila and CALABARZON make up 67 percent of our economy,” he said.
On the ECQ, Roque said “it is for this reason that the local government units of Metro Manila has been directed to implement a strict localized lockdown/ECQ in barangays where 80 percent of cases are located and the publication of these barangays.”
Among measures that the LGUs must implement include the stringent enforcement of minimum public health standards; massive targeted testing, intensified tracing, quarantine of close contacts; strict adherence to the implementation of Oplan Kalinga for isolation of confirmed cases.
“We are also engaging the community through risk communication, social mobilization and advocacy to observe the minimum public health standards of wearing a mask washing of hands and keeping a physical distance. ‘Mag-mask, hugas, iwas’ is the battle cry in our war against COVID-19,” he added.
Duterte announced that Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Cebu City, Lapu-Lapu City, and Mandaue City had been placed under a less restrictive general community quarantine (GCQ) until August 15.
A GCQ has also been implemented in Cebu’s Talisay City, Minglanilla, and Consolacion, while the rest of the country has been placed under modified GCQ, a more relaxed community quarantine imposed by the government.
Meanwhile, some senators on Saturday expressed their support to the appeal of health workers to place Metro Manila under the much stricter ECQ amid the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the National Capital Region and nearby provinces.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said the request of health workers was valid that Malacañang should seriously consider.
“Putting human lives above all considerations is a no-brainer, given the choice. Having said that, some adjustments can be made in the distribution of government subsidy to the most basic necessities of those who need it the most,” he said in a statement.
“What is important is to prevent an obvious pattern of upsurge in the daily coronavirus infection. On the other hand, this underscores the significance of data management by concerned government agencies, which after more than four months should have already been in place and readily implementable,” added Lacson.
Senator Edgardo Angara seconded Lacson, saying the inter-agency task force should meet with health workers to address their concerns
“The lack of PPEs (personal protective equipment), the filling up of hospitals, the state of our testing, tracing, and quarantine systems and how to improve them – these are some of the urgent issues raised,” he said.
“I concur,” said Senate President Vicente Sotto III.
Meanwhile, Senator Manuel Lapid filed a bill aimed to address the stockpiling problem especially during calamities and disasters.
Under this measure, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) shall establish the National Emergency Stockpile which shall be the central repository and supply reserve of food items, medicines, vaccines, tents, beds, blankets and other emergency-related articles, facilities and equipment.
At the same time, Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon said front liners should be given priority once a vaccine had been developed.
“It is definitely impossible to vaccinate the entire population immediately even if the vaccine is already available and it will take time to be able to achieve that. In the meantime, millions would still be vulnerable to COVID19 as the population is inoculated in stages,” Biazon, vice chairperson of the House committee on appropriations, said.
Biazon said the country’s fight against the coronavirus crisis would be endangered if the medical frontliners get sick.
“The greatest danger during a pandemic is when a country’s healthcare system is overwhelmed. If a big number of medical frontliners fall victim to the virus, then the capability of the healthcare system to meet the demands brought about by the virus wreaking havoc on the population becomes seriously diminished,” Biazon stressed. “Therefore, it is of strategic importance that medical frontliners be prioritized when the government gets hold of vaccines for distribution to the people.”
Duterte himself has placed the “cart before the horse” when the latter insisted his administration’s roadmap in response to the COVID-19 pandemic would be made only when the anti-viral vaccine was available.
“Without a roadmap pending the availability of the vaccine, the Duterte administration cannot simply watch the beleaguered Filipinos and the distressed businesses stumble by the roadside,” Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said.
Lagman said the President could not simply wait for the contingency of the vaccine’s availability while the contagion continues to ravage the country with almost 100,000 found positive and 2,023 had died, including healthcare frontliners. With AFP and PNA