Senators call for revamp of COVID-19 response task force
MANILA, Philippines – As calls mounted for a revamp or the outright abolition of the government’s task force overseeing the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, several senators on Tuesday said they doubted that the COVID-19 managers could reduce new infections by 25 percent in two weeks without a serious change in strategy.
The government announced the goal on Monday after expanding the coronavirus curbs in Metro Manila to four neighboring provinces, shutting the borders to unnecessary movement, and imposing targeted lockdowns to suppress a surge in COVID-19 cases that had seen the new infections daily count hitting 8,000.
‘One lockdown to another’
Believed to be driven by highly contagious variants of the coronavirus, the surge is pushing Metro Manila hospitals to capacity, prompting the Department of Health (DOH) on Tuesday to call for more centers for isolation, treatment and monitoring of mild and asymptomatic cases to ease the pressure on hospitals.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said on Monday that the government considered the goal “realistic,” but Sen. Francis Pangilinan on Tuesday predicted that the country would just go into repeated lockdowns for months unless the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases dealt with serious gaps in mass testing, contact tracing and isolation, and unclogged bottlenecks in the vaccine rollout.
“I am afraid we will just be running in place and find ourselves moving from one lockdown to another in the months ahead,” he told the Inquirer in a Viber message.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said he had no confidence that a 25 percent reduction in new cases was possible “given the ineptitude of this government.”
“The ineptitude of the DOH and [the task force] is glaring from our lack of an effective tracing and tracking system, which is critical to our ability to control the spread of the virus,” Drilon said in a text message.
He said the Philippines was in a much worse situation than its neighbors in the region, including even some smaller economies.
“Look where Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan are today, compared to us. If reports are accurate, Bangladesh, a poorer country, already started its general public inoculation a few weeks back,” Drilon noted.
New engine, new driver
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said the task force should be reorganized, echoing similar calls by Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Sen. Imee Marcos.
“We wasted a year,” he told the Inquirer in a Viber message.
Recto said experts from the private sector, including those knowledgeable in public health and logistics, should have a bigger voice in the task force, which is coheaded by Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles.
“[The task force] needs to be revamped. Or like a car, a new engine and change of driver is needed. Protocols are confusing, etc. [The] government should focus on vaccine rollout,” he said.
Recto said the government should be vaccinating 4 million Filipinos a week for nine months to achieve the target of 72 million by the end of the year.
But “we are [averaging only] 100,000 per week,” he lamented, adding that the vaccination plan should be focusing on high-risk urban areas.
“It’s all their fault,” Recto said, referring to the task force.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros agreed that the task force should be overhauled instead of abolished.
“It is clear as day that we need to overhaul the [task force] and replace its members with public health experts who actually know how to handle a public health emergency,” Hontiveros said in a statement.
“The extreme call is to abolish the [task force], but during a pandemic, an interagency body is necessary. It must be led by public health experts and epidemiologists, not by military officers,” she said.
“The [task force] has continuously and confidently walked in the wrong direction, backward, no matter how many times the public and lawmakers have called them out,” she said. “We must undertake a complete management overhaul of the [task force].”
It’s the virus’ fault
Malacañang refused, blaming the surge on the coronavirus variants instead.
“Whether we accept it or not, the virus has mutated and the [task force] cannot be blamed that the virus has mutated to become more transmissible,” Roque told a news briefing on Tuesday.
He said the Philippines was not the only country in the world where COVID-19 cases were increasing due to the variants.
But the task force is tackling the crisis by imposing additional restrictions, Roque said, adding that the effects of the measures would be seen after two weeks—the incubation period of the coronavirus.
“We welcome all suggestions, but understand that nothing can match the [task force] when it comes to human capital because the entire bureaucracy of the government came together for our COVID-19 response,” Roque said.
‘First line of defense’
New infections dropped on Tuesday to nearly 6,000 from more than 8,000 the day before, but isolation centers and temporary quarantines for mild and asymptomatic cases in Metro Manila were 78 percent full.
“[I]t’s a bit high, and rising at the same pace as hospitals,” Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega told a news briefing.
Mild and asymptomatic cases are the bulk of new infections, and Vega said more centers to handle these cases were needed, as these were “the first line of defense before going to the hospitals.”
The hospitals could concentrate on moderate and severe cases, he added.
Vega said the health care use rate at hospitals was 60 percent, or moderate risk, while the intensive care bed use rate was 73 percent to 76 percent.
These are signs, he said, that steps must be taken to stem the rise in new infections.
On Tuesday, the DOH logged 5,867 additional coronavirus infections, pushing the overall figure for confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country to 677,653.
The DOH said 630 more patients had recovered, raising the total number of COVID-19 survivors in the country to 578,461. But 20 other patients had died, it said, bringing the death toll to 12,992.
That left the country with 86,200 active cases, of which 95.4 percent were mild, 2.3 percent asymptomatic, 0.49 percent moderate, 0.9 percent severe, and 0.9 percent critical.
—WITH REPORTS FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA AND PATRICIA DENISE M. CHIU
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