Health professionals welcome retention of 1-meter distancing
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to retain the 1-meter physical distancing requirement for passengers on public utility vehicles (PUVs), drawing praise from health professionals who said the decision would help prevent at least 700 new coronavirus infections and at least seven deaths daily.
“The President’s decision is to keep the 1-meter social distancing in public transportation,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque announced on state-owned PTV4 on Saturday, effectively suspending the contentious new policy that the Department of Transportation (DOTr) wanted to implement last week.
The DOTr wanted to reduce the social distancing rule in a bid to increase the capacity of public transportation, make it faster for people to report for work and revive an economy in recession, but the Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC) countered “that reviving the economy and protecting lives must go hand in hand in our COVID-19 response.”
Other options available
“Reducing physical distancing is not our only option to address transportation shortage,” HPAAC said in a statement on Saturday, adding that the group hopes the 1-meter requirement would remain in place “until the situation becomes more favorable.”
HPAAC recommended that, instead of tweaking measures proven to curb the spread of COVID-19, the government should facilitate transportation service contracting and give incentives and subsidies to PUV operators.
More bicycle lanes and walkways should also be put in place and staggered work hours should be implemented in select businesses to help reduce congestion, the group added.
HPAAC, a coalition of over 160 medical societies, estimated that even with the implementation of preventive measures, such as the wearing of masks and face shields, there will be at least 700 new Covid-19 cases daily if physical distancing on public transport is reduced to 0.75 meters as prescribed by the new DOTR policy.
This means that the government would have to ramp up its manpower for contact tracing to look for 25,000 more individuals.
Given how the disease affects patients, 140 of the 700 new infections may require hospitalization, seven of which would result in deaths.
“These figures are based on conservative assumptions, and the real picture could be worse,” HPAAC said.
PH cases reach 283,460
On Saturday, the Department of Health (DOH) reported 3,962 new cases, pushing the national tally to 283,460.
Metro Manila still accounted for most of the new infections with 1,440 cases, followed by Bulacan (354), Cavite (287), Laguna (222) and Batangas (213).
A total 209,885 patients have recovered from COVID-19, with 1,128 new recoveries.
The death toll rose to 4,930, with 100 more patients succumbing to the severe respiratory disease.
That tallies a total of 68,645 active cases, of which 87.4 percent are mild, 9 percent asymptomatic, 1.1 percent severe and 2.5 percent critical.
The DOTr said it would strictly enforce the decision of President Duterte to retain the 1-meter gap between passengers.
Trains and ferries can easily revert to that rule, the DOTr said, but the capacity of other land vehicles, such as jeepneys and buses, will have to be reduced further because the current practice of spacing passengers one seat apart does not equate to 1-meter distancing.
New guidelines readied
“It doesn’t make sense to allow PUVs to separate passengers one seat apart while trains and maritime vessels are required to enforce 1-meter physical distancing,” Assistant Transportation Secretary Goddes Libiran explained, adding that the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) would be releasing new guidelines on the matter.
The LTFRB has so far allowed about 69,000 PUVs to operate in areas under general community quarantine, including 24,295 regular buses, P2P (point-to-point) buses, UV Express units and jeepneys allowed to ply a total of 378 reopened routes.
Of this number, around 18,000 conventional and “modernized” public utility jeepneys were allowed to ply 251 reopened routes.
Also authorized to resume operations were 20,891 taxicabs and 23,898 vehicles that can be booked via ride-sharing apps.
The DOTR’s move to reduce the distance between passengers was met with opposition, as even top administration officials disagreed among themselves on the wisdom of the new rule.
Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade maintained that the proposal was intended to help more people get to work in line with efforts to revive the economy after months on lockdown, but Interior Secretary Eduardo Año noted that medical experts were not consulted about it.
Metro Manila mayors also expressed their disapproval and even doctors differed on their views, with some saying it was not so much the distance as the wearing of face masks and shields, and avoiding talking that would prevent transmission of the virus.
—Jovic Yee, Leila B. Salaverria and Mariejo S. Ramos
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