MANILA — The World Health Organization's representative in the Philippines said on Tuesday that the increase in COVID-19 cases in the country is "worrying but also expected," as he called for expanded testing and improved contact tracing.
“We are aware of increasing transmission in the National Capital Region and this is not something unique to the Philippines as countries relax their stringent quarantine measures, people come into contact with each other,” said Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO representative to the Philippines, during a virtual forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).
For the last week, the Department of Health had reported additional COVID-19 cases in the range of 1,000 to more than 2,000 a day. This follows the easing of quarantine measures in June as the country slowly opens up its economy.
But Abeyasinghe said that with the increased testing capacity of the Philippines, “if the virus is out there, you expect that to be detected. So detecting large numbers of positives is actually a good thing.”
“What is worrying is the proportion of positive cases is very slowly increasing,” he said, pointing out that from a positivity rate of 6.5 percent two weeks ago, the Philippines reported a positivity rate of 7.8 percent for the whole country on Monday.
The positivity rate is the proportion of people testing positive for COVID-19 out of all who are tested.
“This is worrying. This shows that there is continuing transmission. This is also reflected by the increased number of admissions that are happening in hospitals,” he said.
“What WHO advocates is that we try to maintain positivity rate at 5 percent, which means the country is testing enough people,” he said.
Asked what it means for the Philippines to have a positivity rate that is more than 5 percent, Abeyasinghe said: “It means that there are some areas [where] we are seeing increasing transmission. And in these places, we are seeing that not enough people are being tested.”
He said “early action” is needed to suppress the transmission of the virus in those places.
Besides NCR, Cebu province and Region 7 have seen an increase in cases.
Abeyasinghe said that while the country is increasing its testing capacity, it should also be ramping up its contact tracing to identify those who have been exposed to the virus and eventually curb the further spread of COVID-19.
“What is necessary is that as the Philippines works to further expand its testing capacity to probably also expand its capacity to further strengthen contact tracing,” he said.
He said it is also ideal that testing is done with a 24-hour turnaround time.
Nevertheless, the WHO official commended the Philippines for its “continuously improving” response to the pandemic.
Asked if parts of the country should return to an enhanced community quarantine or a stricter lockdown, Abeyasinghe said, “We recognize that relaxation of the stringent measures are necessary because the stringent lockdown comes at a huge socio-economic cost which countries need to manage.”
“The solution is not locking down a whole city or a large geographic area,” he said, adding that “very targeted measures” can be implemented instead.
“Another measure that needs to be done is encouraging the management of mild cases of asymptomatic positives in so-called isolation centers rather than admitting them to hospitals,” he added, echoing the DOH’s instruction to hospitals to refer mild cases to temporary treatment facilities in order to free up COVID-19 wards.
Several major hospitals have declared full capacity amid the spike in cases.
Abeyasinghe also emphasized the need for the public to cooperate with the government and follow minimum public health standards.
As of Monday, the Philippines has recorded over 57,000 COVID-19 cases.