The Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) will be placed under a general community quarantine (GCQ) from February 1 to 15, Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong confirmed on Tuesday.
Magalong, as the government’s contract tracing czar for the coronavirus crisis, said the region will be downgraded from its current Modified GCQ or MGCQ status, the government’s lightest lockdown level amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stricter border control will also be implemented between Benguet and Mountain Province, which has seen a rash of cases of the more contagious United Kingdom variant of the coronavirus, during the same period.
Magalong said this means that travelers seeking to enter Benguet and Mountain Province must present a medical clearance to authorities.
Only essential travel will be allowed, he added.
This coincided with a regional health official saying Tuesday the surge of COVID-19 cases in the region was “exponential,” but told provincial and local officials that with discipline, they could get the spread under control.
Amelita M. Pangilinan, assistant regional director of the Department of Health (DOH)-CAR, led a team of contract tracers from Baguio City and other DOH regional offices to help contact tracing efforts in Bontoc town, Mountain Province.
Mountain Province recorded 56 new confirmed cases Tuesday with its capital Bontoc accounting for 37. The other confirmed cases are from the municipalities of Sabangan (9), Sagada (4), Sadanga (2), Tadian (2), Bauko (1) and Paracelis (1).
The Provincial Health Office reported 465 active cases.
The Cordillera has 10,491 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, and the DOH last week tagged the region as a “high-risk” area for the coronavirus due to the increasing virus attack and growth rates.
Records from the DOH-Cordillera showed CAR recorded a 199-percent growth rate of the virus in the last two weeks, which indicated an alarming surge of infections.
Given the spike in infections, Pangilinan said that the DOH sought help from Magalong, who has had success with contact tracing in Baguio City.
Some members of Pangilinan’s contact tracing team will establish an incident command post with an enhanced database system that will be based in the Bontoc municipal capitol.
Pangilinan said the exponential rise in the number of COVID-19 cases was the “utter disregard” of public health standards—such as the wearing of masks and social distancing—over the Christmas holidays.
The health official also said provincial and local epidemiology and surveillance units must be more vigilant in their monitoring and reporting of new cases.
She commended the Mountain Province surveillance unit for the early detection of the more infectious UK variant of the coronavirus in the province.
Pangilinan said barangay health emergency response teams must be mobilized to monitor cases and ensure that those under home quarantine are really isolating themselves.
LGUs, she said, should also have safety officers who will ensure that minimum public health standards are observed.
She recommended that people who do not wear masks and establishments that allow social gatherings that do not enforce social distancing be penalized.
She also urged provincial and local officials to set the right example by following minimum public health standards.
“Everything boils down to discipline. Let us start in our own homes, offices and then let it radiate to the community where we are,” she said.
Bontoc is at a standstill as the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) imposed a lockdown to prevent further transmission of COVID-19.
The surge in COVID-19 cases in the town has led to a shortage of hospital beds and health care workers, Dr. Ruby Constantino, director of the Cordillera Center for Health Development, said.
A new building intended for drug rehabilitation will be used to accommodate 75 mild and asymptomatic patients, she told ABS-CBN’s Teleradyo, as the province awaits approval for the emergency hiring of more health care workers.
Bontoc Mayor Franklin C. Odsey issued an executive order mandating free mass testing in barangays Bontoc III, Caluttit, Poblacion, Samoki, and Tocucan.
The DOH confirmed Monday evening that there was local transmission, and not community transmission, of the new and more transmissible UK variant of COVID-19 in Bontoc, Mountain Province.
“The Department of Health confirms local transmission in Bontoc of the B.1.1.7 variant of SARS-CoV-2 as identified through genomic sequencing,” the DOH said in a statement, referring to the variant first detected in the United Kingdom.
“To date, all identified cases with the UK variant can be epidemiologically linked to cases coming directly from outside the country (importation) or from specific cases or exposures that can still be identified (local transmission),” the DOH said.
“We have found no strong evidence of community transmission based on the following WHO definitions for community transmission,” the DOH said.
Community transmission refers to the appearance of a large number of cases, occurrence of case clusters in multiple areas, and inability to link cases to known sources of infection, the World Health Organization says.
The DOH also revised the initial information it released Monday morning that the “index case” or possible source of infections in Bontoc was a Filipino who came from the United Kingdom.
The DOH clarified that the man, who arrived in Bontoc in December, tested positive for COVID-19 but negative for the new variant. His wife, who accompanied him to Bontoc, tested negative for COVID-19.
The cluster of cases in Brgy. Samoki in Bontoc was previously reported to have begun with the man.
A total of 46 contacts linked to the man, who “mingled with relatives and neighbors” and attended a traditional ritual in Bontoc, tested positive for COVID-19. But while the man was negative for the UK variant, 12 of the 46 had the UK variant in their samples. There are 28 more that are awaiting genome sequencing.
Of the 12, seven were males. Three children aged 5, 6, and 10 years were identified. Eleven cases came from Bgy. Samoki.
Since the suspected index case was negative for the UK variant, the DOH is trying to backtrace the exposures and travel histories of the other cases to identify other possible sources of infection.
The DOH said the regional epidemiology and surveillance unit is also interviewing other returning Filipinos who recently arrived in Bontoc.
There are currently 17 UK variant cases in the Philippines with the others detected in different provinces in the country.
The DOH said that while the UK variant has been linked to increased transmissibility, it is not believed to cause more severe or fatal cases. It reminded the public of the importance of completing the 14-day isolation period.