The recent increase in COVID-19 cases might only be the tip of the iceberg as the country's capability to detect the more transmissible Delta variant is still limited, Health Undersecretary and treatment czar Leopoldo Vega said Sunday.
The Philippines' new COVID-19 infections rose above 8,000 during three consecutive days, with the Delta variant cases mushrooming in Metro Manila and other provinces.
“Not all RT-PCR positive test results are used in sequencing the Delta variant. We think the cases we are able to record represents only the tip of the iceberg,” Vega said in Filipino in an interview on radio dzBB. “We need to do more to address this, otherwise more will get infected.”
Upticks in cases are seen in Metro Manila, Region 1, Region 4A, Region 6, Region 7, and Region 10, Vega said.
He said most of the sequenced Delta variant cases, now at 216, came from Metro Manila areas.
Vega acknowledged that daily cases could go much higher unless the government implements strict Prevent-Detect-Isolate-Treat-Reintegrate (PDITR) measures.
Amid increasing Delta variant cases, Metro Manila will be placed again under the strictest enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) from Aug. 6 to 20 in a bid to avert a possible surge in COVID-19 cases.
The Philippines logged 8,735 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, bringing the total number of infections to 1,597,689, the third straight day when more than 8,000 cases were recorded.
One hundred twenty-seven new fatalities were reported, bringing the COVID-19 death toll to 28,016.
The DOH reported 5,930 persons who recently recovered, bringing the total recoveries to 1,506,027.
There were 63,646 active cases, of which 94 percent were mild, 1.3 percent were asymptomatic, 1.2 percent were critical, 2.1 percent were severe, and 1.45 percent were moderate.
Nationwide, 59 percent of the ICU beds, 51 percent of the isolation beds, 48 percent of the ward beds, and 40 percent of the ventilators, were in use.
In Metro Manila, 51 percent of the ICU beds, 49 percent of the isolation beds, 42 percent of the ward beds, and 39 percent of the ventilators, were in use.
Malacañang said it has placed the provinces of Apayao, Laguna and Aklan under modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) from Aug. 1 to 15.
In a statement released Sunday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said President Rodrigo Duterte approved the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to reclassify Laguna and Aklan from general community quarantine with heightened restrictions to MECQ, while Apayao was reclassified from GCQ to MECQ.
The quarantine classification of the province of Cebu, on the other hand, was downgraded from MECQ to GCQ with heightened restrictions, also from Aug. 1 to 15.
The IATF approved the shortening of detection to isolation of cases to less than five days, which includes the tracking of active cases in all areas, prioritizing those with clustering of COVID-19 cases, as well as tracing of close contacts of all suspect, probable and confirmed cases within 24 hours of detection of a case.
Facility-based isolation and quarantine should also be prioritized to prevent household transmission, the IATF said.
Already, he said, the number of calls received by the One Hospital Command Center (OHCC), the country's hospital referral center, is already increasing, rising from 90 during the first week of July to 175 calls recorded in the last two weeks.
“This means active calls are increasing. Many people are getting sick, or transmission is higher,” Vega said.
Most of the calls are from Metro Manila, he said.
To prepare for the ECQ and possible sudden surge of COVID-19 infections, Vega said they already added 110 call receivers to their manpower. He added that more medical coordinators also joined the OHCC.
“We are also offering telemedicine services if people need virtual consultation and virtual prescription,” he said.
The independent OCTA Research Group said the average number of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines rose 7 percent to 6,247, compared to last week.
In its latest report, OCTA said the country also recorded an average positivity rate of 14 percent over the past week.
On Friday, the Philippines reported 8,562 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily infections recorded since May 28.
The National Capital Region (NCR) reported a 7-day average of 1,155 this week, which is 35 percent higher than last week’s average.
OCTA also reported that the positivity rate in NCR rose to 9 percent.
“Hospital bed occupancy in the NCR increased to 43 percent compared to seven days ago; the number of occupied hospital beds increased to 12 percent over the same period,” OCTA said.
“ICU bed occupancy in the NCR increased to 52 percent. The number of ICU beds occupied in the NCR increased by 21 percent from the previous week,” they said.
CTA previously said that the NCR could possibly see as many as 2,000 new COVID-19 cases per day by next week.
OCTA said Cebu, Ilocos Norte, Bulacan, Misamis Oriental, Pampanga, Rizal, and Bataan also registered a significant increase in new cases.
The group also said Metro Manila may already have community transmission of the Delta variant, based on the increasing percentage of such cases detected through genome sequencing.
OCTA's Guido David said there might be 300 new cases of Delta variant per day in the capital region, based on the percentage of its cases out of the country's total infections.
“We understand that the Department of Health is the official body and they're confirming this through genome sequencing… We’re an independent group, we can say based on statistics, based on sampling, that the Delta variant cases we've seen have increased to 25 percent from 15 percent,” David told ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo.
“If we have 300 cases per day, we can say there's community transmission. In the interest of safety, even if there's no confirmation yet, it’s better to assume there's already community transmission so we'll be extra careful,” he said.
As of last Wednesday, a total of 216 Delta variant cases have been detected in the country, out of 9,725 samples that went through genome sequencing. Only 16 are active, eight have died, and the remaining 192 have recovered.
Of the latest batch of 97 additional Delta variant cases that were confirmed, 25 were in Metro Manila. The 97 include three fatalities and 94 recoveries.
The Beta variant (first detected in South Africa) has the greatest number of cases at 2,146, of which, 19 are active, followed by the Alpha variant (first detected in the UK) at 1,856, including 18 active cases.
The threat of the Delta variant is the last remaining "hurdle" for the country this year, said David.
“This is our last major hurdle this year,” David said. “If we get through this and many are vaccinated in Metro Manila, we're going to have a booming four months… We will have a Merry Christmas.” David said.
OCTA projects Metro Manila will reach 2,000 daily cases by Aug. 10, but infections are already accelerating, David said.
The Philippines aims to vaccinate 58 million from Metro Manila and eight other major urban hubs by yearend to achieve population protection and revive the economy.
Some 7,835,715 have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine as the country administered a total of 19,359,927 jabs so far.
In other developments:
• The authorities said the National Capital Region (NCR) Plus travel bubble began Sunday in compliance with the IATF resolution that placed added and heightened restrictions prior to the two-week ECQ. Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año on Sunday said quarantine control points (QCP) manned by police, soldiers, coast guard personnel and firemen would be positioned at the borders of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna, and Cavite. Only authorized persons outside of residence (APORs) will be allowed to enter and leave the NCR Plus area.
• Senator Juan Edgardo Angara said the government needs to ramp up genomic sequencing or surveillance as the 750 samples a week being evaluated is less than 1 percent of the recorded COVID-19 cases nationwide.
• House Deputy Speaker Bernadette Herrera asked Malacañang to reconsider its decision to place the National Capital Region under ECQ, citing the negative effect of the lockdown on the economy and residents. Herrera warned that placing Metro Manila—the financial center and key to many economic activities of the country—under the strictest quarantine status would further cripple the economy and push more people into extreme poverty. “The economy and our people have suffered a lot and we certainly cannot afford another lockdown without enough financial assistance from the government,” she said.