MANILA - Government's easing of physical distancing in public transportation amid the lingering COVID-19 pandemic is "problematic," an infectious disease expert said Sunday.
The Department of Transportation earlier said it would push through on Monday the easing of physical distancing in public vehicles to 0.75 meter from 1 meter, following the approval of the Inter Agency Task Force (IATF) on COVID-19.
The use of face masks and face shields will mitigate virus transmission but "close contact definition remains," said Dr. Edsel Salvaña, an infectious disease doctor at the Philippine General Hospital.
"The proposal to decrease the distance in public transport to less than one meter is problematic. If there is a SINGLE COVID-19 positive person in the transport, anyone less than one meter from him/her after 15 minutes becomes a close contact who will need to quarantine and can potentially spread disease," he said.
"To quote the title of one paper: 'Case isolation, contact tracing, and physical distancing are pillars of COVID-19 pandemic control, not optional choices'."
Transportation Undersecretary Artemio Tuazon Jr. said the agency moved to reduce physical distancing in transport to accommodate more passengers, especially in modern jeepneys and buses.
"Nakita namin na pwede namang liitan ang pagitan ng mga pasahero basta nandoon pa rin ang health protocols katulad ng face mask, face shield, handwashing, at thermal screening bago sumakay," he said in a virtual press briefing.
(We saw that we can reduce the distance between passengers as long as there are still health protocols like wearing of face mask, face shield, handwashing, and thermal screening before boarding.)
Most forms of public transport were allowed to operate under general community quarantine (GCQ) but under reduced capacity and strict health protocols.
Metro Manila is under GCQ until Sept. 30.
Salvaña, meanwhile, said wearing a mask, which decreases the amount of inhaled virus, "is one path to increasing population immunity while awaiting a vaccine."
He also said that "asymptomatic transmission is much less likely than symptomatic transmission," and asserted that "the best defense against SYMPTOMATIC spread is quick isolation."
"The best defense against ASYMPTOMATIC spread is constant mask use, physical distancing, and eye protection which can significantly interrupt transmission from undetected asymptomatic cases," the physician said.
In cases where someone at home tests positive for COVID-19, "the most important interventions are ENTIRE HOUSEHOLD QUARANTINE and CONTACT TRACING," he said.
Salvaña also sought to refute claims that SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, was developed from a laboratory, saying "there is compelling genomic data that the virus arose naturally."
The Philippines has logged 257,863 confirmed coronavirus infections, as of Saturday, of which, 66,455 are active cases. The country's first case was confirmed on Jan. 30 in a Chinese woman who arrived from Wuhan City, China where the disease is believed to have first emerged.