DOH warns of virus surge

Reason: Decreasing adherence to health protocols in malls, open spaces

COVID-19 cases are shooting up in several areas, including Metro Manila, as people indulge in unsafe holiday activities, the Department of Health (DOH) said Thursday.

In a press briefing, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said there is a “continuous growth of cases” in some areas, “signaling the start of the surge.”

“New cases are increasing. [A] surge will most likely happen. It is not a question anymore of if, but when and by how much,” she said in an online briefing.

Vergeire cited reports on the public’s “decreasing adherence” to physical distancing in malls and holiday sales in open spaces, which increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Aside from Metro Manila, the areas that recorded the highest spike in new cases were Calabarzon, the Davao Region, and the Cordillera Administrative Region.

Vergeire said Metro Manila, Region 1 and Region 2 have reversed the downward trend in the number of cases in the last two weeks.

The surge can also be seen in the average daily attack rate (ADAR), or the number of new cases in a city or province over a two-week period, divided by the population of the city or province.

Metro Manila’s ADAR was at 2.71 for the last two weeks, much higher than the country average of 1.35.

The virus’s reproductive rate, or the number of people that one infected person passes the disease to, is now above 1.0 from 0.8, indicating the potential for exponential growth.

“I think it is most significant that the R value has risen above 1 for the first time in months and this suggests that the (cases) started to increase,” said Nicanor Austriaco, a fellow at the OCTA Research team that has been tracking the pandemic. “The danger [is that the rate will] go up exponentially and explosively, and that is what we are trying to prevent.”

Vergeire, however, said the country has yet to experience a surge of COVID-19 cases, despite infections going up.

“Based on scientific definition, there is no surge yet. We are still recording a spike in new cases but we do not want to get to the point where we have a surge, which is why we are trying to prevent it,” she said.

Vergeire warned that Metro Manila cases could surge to as high as 4,000 cases a day if the public fails to stick to pandemic protocols such as social distancing, the wearing of face masks and shields, and fewer interactions during the holidays.

“Cases in the National Capital Region may reach upwards of 4,000 per day, which may overwhelm our health system capacity to upwards of 80 percent utilization by the end of January if we do not act aggressively to halt transmission now,” she said.

Prof. Ranjit Rye of the OCTA Research Team noted that the long holiday break could feed the rise of COVID-19 all over the country as pandemic fatigue sets in and more people go out of their homes.

“What we do now is more important than any government intervention in the next few weeks. This rise could become a surge...We can still do something. It is not an eventuality at the moment, the increases are modest...If we help each other, I think we can prevent the surge from happening,” he said.

Data from Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Trends showed an increase in mobility over the past 3.5 weeks: 12 percent increase in retail and recreation, 11 percent in transit stations, and 9 percent in parks.

Vergeire said hospitals usually have weaker capacity in January due to personnel transitions, end-of-contract breaks or non-renewal of job orders.

She warned against complacency vis-a-vis the coronavirus especially the public’s decreasing adherence to minimum health standards in places such as Divisoria and Recto as shown in news reports.

She also warned against super-spreader events and venues: indoor events where lots of people are talking or even singing and the air is not being exchanged, diluted or filtered.

Examples of these are restaurants, bars, clubs, choir practices, weddings and even funerals.

“By simply talking, you release 170 viral particles per minute...How much more if there is shouting or loud singing?” she said.

The health official also defended the use of both face masks and face shields, saying the shields provide an extra layer of protection for individuals.

Wearing face masks has 67 percent individual effectiveness in preventing transmission while face shields give 66 percent protection, according to local research. When used together, the effectiveness goes up to 89 percent.

Several hospitals and medical personnel are now preparing for the surge of COVID-19 cases during the Christmas season, in order to ensure they will be able to handle the fresh cases.

“Whatever the patients need, whether they are COVID or non-COVID, we are ready, with enough supplies and even ventilators,” said Dr. Encarnita Limpin of the Philippine College of Physicians, speaking in Filipino to “24 Oras.” “We know more now [about the virus] because a lot of information has surfaced.”

Dr. Jose Rene de Grano of the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines, Inc. also said private hospitals have prepared for the surge in COVID-19 cases despite problems in funding and staffing.

With the rise in COVID-19 infections since March this year, the government had appealed to private hospitals to increase their bed capacity to 30 percent.

The DOH has urged hospitals to set up more beds and mechanical ventilators in case of a surge.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III also urged local government units to allot more isolation beds at their temporary treatment and monitoring facilities to quarantine suspect COVID-19 patients and their close contacts.

COVID-19 testing laboratories will continue to operate during the holidays, the Halth chief added, saying that as of Dece. 12, about 6.2 million Filipinos have been tested for the deadly disease.

Duque noted that the country’s cumulative positivity rate is at 8.7 percent, which was 8.8 percent on Dec. 7, and its test positivity rate stands at 5 percent.

“This is the benchmark that the WHO (World Health Organization) has prescribed. We have been able to follow that,” he said.

Duque urged Filipinos to do the following during the holidays:

* Avoid crowded and enclosed areas;

* Skip activities such as singing, caroling, salu-salo, buffet, and use of trumpets;

*Always wear face masks and face shields.

He added that the department also discourages the use of trumpets during the New Year’s Eve celebration.

Duque earlier said the DOH will create a contingency plan to respond if a post-holiday season surge in COVID-19 infections occurs in the country.

Topics: COVID-19 , National Capital Region , Department of Health , Rosario Vergeire , Francisco Duque III
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