Government can reduce on-site staff; Alert Level 4 looms due to COVID-19 rise | Inquirer News
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Government can reduce on-site staff; Alert Level 4 looms due to COVID-19 rise

CAN’T TAKE MORE Pasay City General Hospital notifies the public on Jan. 6 that it’s COVID-19 facilities can’t take any more patients, advising people to check the One Hospital Command for admission in other hospitals. —RICHARD A. REYES

MANILA, Philippines — Government offices will be allowed to further reduce their on-site workforce when coronavirus infections in their workplaces become “overwhelming and unmanageable,” according to a Malacañang directive made public on Saturday as Health Secretary Francisco Duque III announced that Metro Manila would likely be placed under Alert Level 4, a more stringent regulation to control a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Under Alert Level 3, which is prevailing in Metro Manila and several other places in the country, government offices are to remain fully operational and should have at least 60 percent of their employees present on-site.

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The new directive from Malacañang noted that some government offices were having difficulty in complying with the minimum on-site workforce due to the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases among their staff and the need to isolate and quarantine these personnel and their close contacts.

Duque said that while the healthcare utilization rate had not yet reached the threshold required for declaring alert level 4, the second highest in the country’s pandemic alert system, the number of healthcare workers contracting COVID-19 was increasing.

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Healthcare utilization rate refers to the percentage of intensive care unit and ward beds, and ventilators being used for COVID-19 cases.

“Even if we have enough beds but we don’t have enough people to take care of patients, these beds would be useless,” he said in an interview with dzBB radio.

“We are preparing for that, and that is why it is not farfetched that NCR (National Capital Region) would be placed under Alert Level 4,” Duque said.

Acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles on Thursday said the government’s pandemic managers were looking into possibly including the number of available healthcare workers as another factor in determining the alert level for a particular area.

The first time Metro Manila was placed under alert level 4 was on Sept. 16, 2021. It was also the start of the pilot run of granular lockdowns and the alert level system.

Under Alert Level 4, persons aged below 18 and above 65, and those with health risks, including pregnant women, must stay at home unless they need to get essential goods and services or have to go to work.

Intrazonal and interzonal travel for persons who are not required to stay at home may be allowed, subject to guidelines of the local governments at their destinations.

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Anticipating possible understaffing of hospitals due to the growing number of health workers contracting COVID-19, the government’s pandemic task force on Friday shortened the period of isolation or quarantine for fully vaccinated healthcare workers infected with the coronavirus and those exposed to COVID-19 patients.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said hospital infection prevention and control committees and provincial health offices would have to make a thorough study before implementing the new isolation and quarantine protocols, which would depend on the needs of the facility and the risks and benefits.

‘Extreme measure’

The latest Malacañang directive, Memorandum Circular No. 94 signed by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea on Friday, sets the rules and procedures on when and how offices in the executive branch are to reduce the number of employees reporting for work below the minimum number set under the alert level system.

The memorandum states that the reduction of the on-site workforce would be regarded as an “extreme measure” and “reserved for situations where the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace has become overwhelming and unmanageable.”

The head of the agency planning to reduce its on-site workforce must submit a request for clearance to the head of the department that controls or supervises it.

Agencies that are not under the control or supervision of any department should ask for clearance from the Office of the President.

The memorandum directs the offices that reduce their workforce to install hotlines “to respond to the immediate concerns of their respective stakeholders.”

Frontline services

It also states that government offices are not allowed to reduce their on-site workforce just to conduct disinfection of their premises, saying this should be done after office hours or on weekends.

Heads of agencies providing health and emergency front-line services, laboratory and testing functions, border control, and other critical services will operate with a workforce beyond the minimum as may be necessary to perform their tasks.

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) allows alternative work arrangements in both public and private sectors, such as a “hybrid” work-from-home and work-on-site setup of various numbers of employees.

The Department of Health (DOH) also is encouraging the work-from-home setup or other alternative tasking arrangements that would reduce the opportunities for the spread of the coronavirus.

As for the IATF decision on the time required for the isolation or quarantine of healthcare workers with COVID-19, Vergeire said the new period was now shorter than the requirement for the general public, which would still be 10 days of isolation for those positive for COVID-19 and seven days for their close contacts.

Fully vaccinated healthcare workers who test positive but are asymptomatic or only have mild to moderate symptoms could undergo isolation for only five days, while those who are close contacts of COVID-19 patients could skip quarantine, according to the DOH.

To keep PGH running

The Philippine General Hospital (PGH), a COVID-19 referral center, has adopted this policy to ensure that the hospital would have enough workers to keep running, according to its spokesperson Dr. Jonas del Rosario.

The hospital staff could work if they have no symptoms but not if they feel ill, he said. “That is the crisis response of the PGH now so that we will not run out of people,” Del Rosario said at Saturday’s Laging Handa briefing.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Rontgene Solante, who is also a member of the government’s Vaccine Expert Panel, defended the IATF policy after safety questions were raised against it.

Solante explained that the viral load of COVID-19 patients who are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms go down on the fourth or fifth day.

“Then on the sixth day you could already work,” he said at the briefing.

But Solante said these workers should strictly follow health protocols—wearing face masks and face shields, and observing physical distancing. They should also check for the recurrence of symptoms, he said.

The new policy is meant to keep hospitals running, Solante said.

—WITH A REPORT FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH

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