Metro Manila will stay under a General Community Quarantine (GCQ) for the whole of September, but the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) recommended placing Iligan City under a Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ).
President Rodrigo Duterte approved the IATF recommendation on Monday night, enforcing a month-long quarantine in the National Capital Region instead of the fortnightly extensions imposed in previous months, in a meeting with members of the task force in Malacanang.
The provinces of Bulacan and Batangas and the cities of Tacloban and Bacolod are also under GCQ from Sept. 1 to 30, while the rest of the country will be under Modified GCQ, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in the same meeting televised nationwide.
Duterte also introduced the new president of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), Dante Gierran, who attended the late night meeting just six months after he was plucked from retirement as the director of the National Bureau of Investigation (see story below -- Editors).
Iligan, the city in Lanao del Norte, saw a 136-percent spike in coronavirus cases over the last two weeks. More than 20 members of its local COVID-19 response team were exposed to persons who tested positive for the deadly disease, as its tally surged to 246 from just 104 cases last Aug. 12.
Zamboanga City, like Iligan also in Mindanao, also saw a surge in cases owing to locally-stranded individuals (LSIs) coming home, COVID-19 National Task Force Chief Secretary Carlito Galvez reported.
In other developments during the meeting:
• Medical frontliners evicted from their homes by fearful landlords or neighbors can call Galvez directly to have them billeted in hotels at the government's expense, the President assured them, while praising them as modern heroes on National Heroes Day.
• Duterte lauded the "consistent" effort to bring home overseas Filipino workers displaced by the pandemic, with over 170,000 repatriated as of August.
He also announced a P1 billion cash aid for the college education of students whose OFW parents either lost their jobs or succumbed to COVID-19. It would give P30,000 each to 33,000 students from OFW families through the Commission on Higher Education.
• The President wants Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo "Jagger" Guerrero to be more aggressive in stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the country, urging him to not rely on the "old hands" inside the agency and promising his support.
Earlier, the IATF recommended to the President that the quarantine status be lengthened from every two weeks to a month.
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said the longer period would provide the stability needed to reopen the economy.
Since a lockdown was imposed in Luzon in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the President has been announcing quarantine qualifications for different parts of the country every two weeks.
If the new recommendation is accepted, this process would happen only every month.
Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases surged to 220,819 Monday after the Department of Health (DOH) reported 3,446 new infections.
This was the sixth consecutive day in which more than 3,000 new cases were reported.
The DOH also reported 38 new fatalities, bringing the total death toll due to COVID-19 to 3,558.
Health officials reported 165 more recoveries, bringing to 157,562 the number of patients who have recovered from the disease.
There were 59,699 active cases in which patients were being treated or under quarantine.
The new cases Monday were based on reports submitted by 97 of the 110 operating testing labs.
The Philippines has been logging 2,000 to almost 7,000 additional COVID-19 cases since late July, following the easing of quarantine measures and the gradual opening up of the economy.
Lopez said the use of face masks and shields, frequent hand washing, physical distancing and contact tracing would be sustained, regardless of the quarantine level.
“We will continue to exercise these precautionary measures until there is a more permanent solution,” he added.
In the past, the transition to different levels of quarantine slowed down economic recovery because business operations oscillate every 14 days.
Lopez said at present, 75 percent of businesses are open and as other sectors reopen, the figure would go up to 94 percent.
Lopez said gyms and personal care centers will be allowed to resume limited operations on Tuesday, Sept. 1, as new community quarantine classifications are set to take effect.
Review, testing, and tutorial centers will also be allowed to resume operations in Metro Manila and other general community quarantine (GCQ) areas up to 30 percent capacity, he said.
Gyms and internet cafes will work with local government units on the specific guidelines "as to extent of operations and more specific health protocol requirements."
None of the 17 mayors of Metro Manila recommended an easing of quarantine restrictions but batted for shorter curfew hours, Parañaque City Mayor Edwin Olivarez, current chairman of the Metro Manila Mayors' Council. said Monday.
From Sept. 1, curfew hours will be from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., instead of starting at 8 p.m., he said.
Lockdowns would be limited to COVID-19-stricken buildings, streets or sitios, instead of entire barangays, he added.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire on Monday said strict community quarantine measures cannot be maintained in the long run.
“There had been studies, even experts are saying that we cannot maintain these strict quarantine measures being implemented in the country,” Vergeire said in an interview on CNN Philippines.
“Our economic managers are already saying if we continue to have these strict community quarantine measures, there would be a lot who are going to be hungry and other diseases will become evident,” she added.
Vergeire made the statement when asked about the possibility of having more relaxed quarantine measures in the country starting September.
Vergeire said following minimum health standards is still one of the most effective interventions that can prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Saturday also said the Philippines can no longer sustain stricter forms of lockdown as this can have adverse long-term effects on the economy.
“We can no longer afford to revert to a higher quarantine status of MECQ (modified enhanced community quarantine) or ECQ because that will irreversibly injure if not damage the economy beyond repair,” Duque said during the ceremonial launching of “Mask Para sa Masa” initiative in Quezon City.
During the second quarter, the Philippine economy plunged into recession, contracting by 16.5 percent—its worst performance on record since 1981.
Duque III admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the country’s frail health care system.
“COVID-19 pandemic is an eye-opener to the weakness of the health system,” Duque said.
“When the virus entered the country, we were struggling... We had diffuty responding,” he said.
“This COVID can be a litmus test on how we can deliver our mandate and provisions of the Universal Healthcare law,” he added.
The pandemic has forced the government and the health care sector to improve,” he said.