Why Metro Manila lockdown eased despite rising COVID-19 cases

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 19 2020 01:59 PM | Updated as of Aug 19 2020 05:35 PM

MANILA--The Department of Health (DOH) on Wednesday admitted that the Philippines was still dealing with a high positivity rate for COVID-19, which is more than double the benchmark set by the World Health Organization (WHO) before governments should ease restrictions.

Achieving the WHO's recommendation of less than 5 percent means a country is "managing its pandemic response properly," said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire. The current positivity rate in the Philippines is 10.4 percent.

"We recognize the fact na mataas ang positivity rate," she said in an online press briefing, citing the need to immediately isolate patients who would test positive for COVID-19 and trace their close contacts right away.

(We recognize the fact that the positivity rate is high.)

The Philippines has the highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia with close to 170,000, while active cases were at 53,665, as of Tuesday. More than 1.9 million individuals have been tested.

A high percent positive, a Johns Hopkins explainer said, "means that more testing should probably be done, and it suggests that it is not a good time to relax restrictions aimed at reducing coronavirus transmission."

The WHO earlier suggested that the positivity rate should be kept below 5 percent for at least 2 weeks before relaxing pandemic restrictions.

The Philippine government on Wednesday eased lockdowns in Metro Manila and 4 neighboring provinces despite warnings from medical experts and some local officials that the shift might be premature.

But Vergeire said community quarantines were "not the only intervention that we can do" against COVID-19. Local governments can set "granular lockdowns," for instance, on streets or specific areas with a concentration of cases.

The DOH spent the last 2 weeks recalibrating strategies on the pandemic, ramping up the search, isolation, and treatment of COVID-19 patients, beginning with house-to-house visits.

The government also put up an improved referral system to ensure that all patients would be accommodated in hospitals or isolation facilities.

The DOH was hoping that these strategies, coupled with public compliance with minimum health standards, would prevent a surge in cases following the lifting of the more stringent modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ).

A team of experts from the University of the Philippines earlier warned that cases might balloon to 230,000 if the MECQ lasted only until Aug. 18.

"Nung ginawa natin itong MECQ, hindi naman natin sinabing in those 2 weeks ay mapapababa natin ang kaso. That's really impossible," Vergeire said.

(When we implemented the MECQ, we never said that cases would go down in those 2 weeks. That's really impossible.)