MANILA, Philippines — Extending the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) in the National Capital Region (NCR) Plus bubble will allow the ongoing decrease in new cases to stabilize and help in decongesting hospitals, according to the OCTA Research Group.
In its latest report released yesterday, the group noted that several local government units (LGUs) still do not have sustained decreases in the number of new cases.
“Our concern is that a premature return to GCQ (general community quarantine) would trigger spikes in some LGUs that would overflow into adjacent cities and municipalities,” the group said.
“One more week of an MECQ will continue to force down the reproduction number to decongest our hospitals more quickly. Despite the gradual decrease in the number of new COVID-19 cases, the hospitals of the NCR remain at critical capacity,” it added.
Citing data from the Department of Health, OCTA said 43 hospitals and infirmaries in Metro Manila were still at 100 percent capacity, while 59 were above critical risk as of April 24.
With the current reproduction number of 0.9, the research group projected hospital bed occupancy will not drop to pre-surge numbers until sometime in June, while it will do so by the third week of May if Metro Manila can attain a reproduction number of 0.8.
“Once the NCR Plus bubble is moved from MECQ to GCQ, we can expect viral transmissions to increase as people begin to interact with each other again. To prevent the surge from re-surging, we will need to enhance our testing, contact tracing and quarantine and isolation procedures to mitigate this transmission,” it said.
“One more week of an MECQ will give the national government additional time to enhance our contact tracing capacity,” it added.
The number of new daily cases in Metro Manila – currently averaging around 3,500 – has to be around 2,688 or below to avoid overwhelming the hospital system, according to OCTA.
“Our estimation is we will decrease to less than 2,688 new COVID-19 cases per day in one to two weeks, based on the current trends,” it said.
An additional week of MECQ, it added, would allow the government to complete the construction of new quarantine and isolation facilities and complete the hiring and training of new contact tracers.
Unlike last year, when a two-week MECQ was enough to reverse a surge, OCTA said it is still unclear if the presence of more transmissible COVID-19 variants will replicate this trend.
The group urged the national government to identify and publish trigger levels for daily cases and health care utilization rates in order for a circuit-breaker lockdown to be imposed.
“We want to emphasize that the downward trend in the pandemic is always reversible. If we do not ensure that our testing, isolation and quarantine capacities are sufficient, we will see the surge re-surge,” it warned.
DILG backs MECQ extension
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año is backing an extension of the MECQ in NCR Plus.
“To continue with the good trend, let us extend the MECQ a bit,” Año said in Filipino in an interview over Teleradyo.
While the daily average of active COVID-19 cases has gone down, he said the number is still not enough to downgrade to the less stringent GCQ.
“We have 8,000 to 10,000 new cases a day. We hope we can bring it down to 3,000 below,” he added.
The interior chief pointed out that the health care utilization rate is still at 70 percent, which means hospitals are still dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases.
As the one who has supervision over LGUs and in charge of public safety, Año said he would choose a conservative outlook.
He pointed out, however, that the decision on whether to extend the MECQ or not is up to President Duterte, adding that they would just give a recommendation based on their consultation with other government agencies and local chief executives.
Año also expressed support for the homecare package of private hospitals for COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms.
He said the move would give hospitals more room to treat those with severe symptoms of the virus.
If Metro Manila’s MECQ is extended, Marikina Mayor Marcelino Teodoro said restrictions on certain economic activities should at least be lifted to allow local economies to thrive.
Teodoro said while he was backing the extension of MECQ imposed in the Greater Manila area after it lapses on May 1, the government should consider residents who have been languishing over the strict health protocols while the second strictest lockdown level is in effect.
“So many are going hungry nowadays. So many have been losing jobs. My take on this is MECQ can be extended but open with more economic activities,” he said in an interview aired over ANC.
For example, the mayor suggested that the government could allow more retail establishments and restaurants to resume operating in order to make up for the great losses they faced during the quarantine restrictions.
Several Metro Manila mayors have voiced the need for their cities to remain under MECQ, considering that while there was a slight drop in cases, it would not be an assurance that this trend would continue if the government decides to loosen restrictions.
Metro Manila and the provinces of Rizal, Cavite, Laguna and Bulacan have been under MECQ since April 12, after two weeks of being under ECQ. The tightening of health protocols was seen as a solution to the surge of COVID-19 cases last month.
While the average daily number of cases in Marikina has improved, Teodoro said the hospital utilization rate in the city is still high.
“Current consideration being proposed with the Metro Manila mayors is to extend the MECQ for another two weeks. After which, it can be assessed and evaluated if we could further downgrade it to GCQ,” he added.
Latest available figures for Marikina showed there were at least 878 active cases in the city, compared to active cases during the second week of April which reached over 1,100.
Shifting to GCQ with only a slight improvement in daily infections in Metro Manila could pose risks for another surge of cases, San Juan Mayor Francis Zamora said yesterday.
Zamora said he favors for Metro Manila to remain under MECQ for two more weeks, which he sees as an opportunity for LGUs to further contain the spread of COVID-19.
Citing San Juan’s own pandemic response, the mayor said the city was able to trim down active cases from over 1,000 to 741 as of yesterday.
“We saw that it decreased, but what I’m concerned about is if we rush reopening already, it’s possible that cases might increase again, especially since the hospital utilization rate is still high, our quarantine facilities are still almost full,” Zamora said over Teleradyo.
Aside from the health care utilization rate, the vaccination rollout is still not consistent as supplies have remained limited due to snags that the government faces in procurement and deliveries, according to Zamora.
“In fact, in San Juan we have run out of the first doses. The vaccines we’re injecting now are almost 6,000 units of the second dose. We’re still waiting for deliveries of more doses,” he said.
He added that while he understands the need to reopen the economy, the risks of shifting to GCQ was greater.
“Let’s say we shifted to GCQ and the cases surged once more, what if we can’t fit more patients in hospitals and quarantine facilities?” he said.
“We both need economy and health and safety of our people. So we need to balance them. When we went under MECQ the last time, there were additional industries that were allowed to reopen. This is a possibility I’m seeing, that certain businesses can be allowed as long as they don’t pose too much of a risk,” he added. – Emmanuel Tupas, Neil Jayson Servallos, Marc Jayson Cayabyab, Christina Mendez, Louella Desiderio