Senators urged caution Sunday amid a push by some government officials to ease quarantine restrictions, even as researchers pointed to data showing COVID-19 infections spreading faster in Metro Manila than in the rest of the country.
Despite calls from economic officials to place the entire country under the least restrictive modified general community quarantine (MGCQ), Senator Christopher Go said he believed vaccines need to be rolled out before further relaxing quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila and other areas with a high incidence of COVID-19 cases.
“Times are so dangerous. The life of every Filipino is important… We can earn money but life cannot be bought with the money we will earn,” he said.
Go said he is open to relaxing quarantine protocols in the coming months once the national vaccine program has begun.
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri also counseled caution.
In a close 9-to-8 vote, Metro Manila mayors said they would recommend dropping to an MGCQ by March to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) as a way to revive the economy.
But Zubiri said he sided with the eight mayors who voted against easing restrictions because new, more transmissible variants of COVID-19 are already in the country.
He said Metro Manila would be more vulnerable to the new variants because of its dense population.
"So far, our contamination rate is less than 2,000 people [a day] but if we will suddenly open, there might be a surge," Zubiri said.
Senator Juan Edgardo Angara said if restrictions are to be eased, these should be done so slowly in densely populated areas.
Face-to-face classes, he said, should reopen only in areas where there are no or very few COVID-19 cases.
The President's economic team earlier proposed that the country be put under an MGCQ to revive its ailing economy. The more relaxed community quarantine will allow industries previously prevented from operating to resume or reopen.
But Vice President Leni Robredo on Sunday questioned the proposal, saying the country still lagged its Asian neighbors in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, which have not even arrived yet. Even Rwanda in Africa has already begun vaccinating its people, she said.
With the high number of cases, she said, the country's response should be urgent.
Meanwhile, Marikina City Rep. Stella Quimbo on Sunday urged the government to come up with a number of indicators to determine the readiness of a particular area to be placed under an MGCQ.
In an interview on Dobol B sa News TV, she said while she supports a proposal to reopen the economy, the government must address “how it should be done.”
“There are provinces that are COVID-free for such a long time, but there are cities, especially in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, that have more increasing cases,” she said.
The Marikina lawmaker suggested to the government to adopt a set of indicators to identify which area could be placed under MGCQ.
“There must be automatic indicators, meaning to say, if cases in a local government unit surpass a certain number of cases per population, automatically, that cannot be under MGCQ. It should be stricter,” she said.
Researchers from the University of the Philippines who have been tracking the pandemic said Saturday that daily Department of Health (DOH) reports showed a slightly upward trend in Metro Manila.
The OCTA Research Team said while the overall trend in the Philippine was flat, the reproduction number in Metro Manila increased to 1.13 in the past week.
A reproduction number of one or higher is an indication of the continuous transmission of the virus.
The researchers said Metro Manila averaged about 430 new COVID-19 cases daily for the last seven days, a 16 percent increase from the previous average of 370 new cases a day.
Some local government units even reported spikes in COVID-19 cases.
“This increase may be due to the Chinese New Year or Valentine’s day effects. It cannot be ruled out that a SARS-Cov2 variant is involved in the sudden spikes,” the OCTA report said.
OCTA Research has warned of a surge in COVID-19 cases should authorities ease quarantine measures following the National Economic and Development Authority’s proposal to place the Philippines under an MGCQ.
Particularly noteworthy were the number of cases in Pasay City, which had nearly doubled, putting it in the high-risk category and leading to a localized lockdown.
It also said that while the upward trend in Cebu has slowed slightly, the city has still reported an average of 192 new cases per day in the last seven days.
“Its reproduction number was 1.54, confirming that the rate of spread of COVID-19 decreased very slightly,” OCTA said.
“The upward trends in some LGUs in NCR and Cebu indicate that the pandemic is not yet under control, as the DOH undertakes to conduct more bio-surveillance testing in areas of concern,” the researchers said.
The country reported 1,888 new infections Sunday, bringing total infections since the pandemic began to 561,169.
The DOH reported 20 new fatalities, bringing the death toll from COVID-19 to 12,088.
The total number of recoveries also climbed to 522,843 after 9,737 more patients recovered from the respiratory illness.
This left 26,238 active cases that are undergoing treatment or under quarantine.
Earlier, the DOH, University of the Philippines-Philippine Genome Center, and the UP-National Institutes of Health confirmed that 18 additional UK COVID-19 variant cases had been detected.
In a statement, the DOH said the new cases brought the total UK variant cases in the country to 62.
Worldwide, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 111 million people and caused over 2.46 million deaths since it first emerged in Wuhan, China in late 2019, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
The United States remains the most badly affected country with over 28 million infections and over 497,000 deaths.
India follows with 10.99 million infections. Brazil ranks third with 10.1 million infections but is second in terms of deaths with over 245,000 COVID-19 fatalities.