DOH sees opportunity to boost COVID-19 response
MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Health (DOH) admitted on Monday that while the reimposition of a two-week lockdown on Metro Manila and four nearby provinces would not be enough to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, it would help buy the government time to recalibrate and strengthen its response against the pandemic.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire stressed that the 14-day modified enhanced community quarantine of Metro Manila, Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Rizal would only serve as a breather for the country’s health system to “reorganize, restrategize and strengthen” efforts to curb the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
“We cannot say if we can contain the transmission [of the virus] in two weeks. We don’t see that happening actually. But what we can do is to initiate our strengthened responses so that we can better manage cases,” Vergeire said.
Work with local gov’ts
During the two-week lockdown, the health official committed that the DOH would coordinate better with local governments that are experiencing an increased number of cases to provide them guidance, especially on the interventions they could do to initiate effective lockdowns, and tracing, testing and isolating cases.
The DOH will also implement a program for eliminating case clusters, which includes community activities that aim to promote preventive behaviors, house-to-house symptom checks as a means of active case finding, testing by RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) for those with symptoms, and care for residents who need to be quarantined.
Currently, there are 887 clusters of infection, or areas with more than two recorded COVID-19 cases.
The majority of these clusters, or 741, are in communities. There are 57 identified clusters in hospitals and 26 in jails. The remaining 63 clusters are in workplaces, accommodations and transportation.
Metro Manila accounted for 315 of the total clusters, 241 of which are in communities.
Also part of the DOH’s strategy during the lockdown is to create a rapid response team of trained medical workers who can help prevent the health system in the metropolis from being overrun. This “substitute team” would be composed of health workers who would be flown to the capital region.
“The call for health-care workers is echoed even louder. Hence, the department continues to appeal to provincial health workers, medical overseas Filipino workers returning home, universities and medical societies to heed the call. Hazard pay, accommodations, transport, personal protective equipment, psychosocial, emotional and mental support will be provided,” the DOH said.
It is worth noting though that as early as March, the department’s strategy already included the deployment of health workers from areas with few recorded COVID-19 cases.
Under the DOH’s guidelines, when the alert level for COVID-19 was raised to red sublevel 2 in March, there was supposed to be an augmentation of uniformed personnel as well as medical staff “from unaffected communities/regions.” But no such plan was disclosed in the early months of the outbreak.
The DOH did implement an emergency hiring program. Of the 9,365 available slots, 6,510 have been filled so far.
For better accommodation of cases, Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega reiterated the DOH call for hospital administrators to ramp up their COVID-19 capacity.
Latest DOH data show that for Metro Manila, there are only around 20 percent of isolation and ward beds left available, while only 25 percent of intensive care beds remain unoccupied.
Vega said the Department of Public Works and Highways had committed to deliver more rooms and beds after completing the construction of additional facilities at East Avenue Medical Center, Quirino Memorial Medical Center, Quezon Institute and Lung Center of the Philippines.
He added that the Department of Tourism also partnered with hotels to provide 2,000 rooms for mild and asymptomatic patients who can no longer be accommodated in the temporary treatment and monitoring centers.
Rapid tests, cash assistance
According to Dr. Maricar Limpin, vice president of the Philippine College of Physicians, health workers are glad that President Duterte heeded their call to tighten quarantine measures to help save the health system from collapsing.
Limpin noted though that the next 15 days should be efficiently used by the government to intensify contact tracing efforts as well as improve strategies to find and isolate cases.
She stressed that at the end of the lockdown, the government and the private sector should also stop their reliance on rapid antibody test kits, especially that it gives the public a “false sense of security.”
Limpin reiterated her group’s recommendation to use the 14-day test instead, where a person needs to be symptom-free for two weeks.
“That has a higher reliability than the rapid antibody tests,” she said.
Recognizing the economic impact of the lockdown, Limpin said her group would strongly push for the provision of cash assistance especially for affected workers.
“During these two weeks, we hope we will be able to set a program that will effectively stop or prevent the transmission of the disease. We will continue to push for a social amelioration program for those affected by the community quarantine because we know that this is needed,” she said.
On the 150th day since the first local case was identified, the DOH recorded an additional 3,226 cases, pushing the national tally to 106,330.
When Metro Manila and most of the country shifted to the less stringent general community quarantine in June, the total number of cases was only more than 18,000.
Of the new cases submitted by 66 of 94 accredited laboratories, Metro Manila recorded the highest number of cases (1,541), followed by Cebu (503), Laguna (181), Rizal (158) and Cavite (129).
The DOH said 2,543 of these cases were infections that occurred within the last 14 days. Metro Manila still had the most number of these cases (1,267), followed by Calabarzon (445) and Central Visayas (353).
There are now a total 65,821 patients who have recovered from COVID-19 with the recovery of 275 more patients.
The death toll, however, increased to 2,104 as 46 patients succumbed to the severe respiratory disease. Of the newly reported deaths, 37 occurred in July, six in June, two in May and one in March.
The fatalities are from Central Visayas (38), Metro Manila (3), Cordillera Administrative Region (2), Central Luzon (1), Calabarzon (1) and Western Visayas (1).
Public Works Secretary Mark Villar said his department was fast-tracking the completion of 23 quarantines in Metro Manila, which have a combined capacity of 2,417 beds.
Eight of these quarantines are located in Quezon City, four in Pasay, two in Pateros, and one each in Manila, Marikina, Parañaque, Makati, Valenzuela, Caloocan, Muntinlupa, Malabon and Navotas.
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