Easing distancing rules 'risky', may trigger surge in COVID-19 cases: experts

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 14 2020 11:02 AM | Updated as of Sep 14 2020 11:55 AM

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MANILA — The government’s “risky” easing of physical distancing rules in public transport may fuel the spread of the novel coronavirus, two health experts warned Monday. 

Physical distancing is the “number one deterrent for viral spread.” Lowering this requirement to 0.75 meter from 1 meter might “jeopardize our efforts in trying to flatten the [pandemic] curve,” said Dr. Tony Leachon. 
“It’s a risky and confusing and counter-intuitive measure,” said Leachon, former adviser of the national task force on COVID-19 response. 

The World Health Organization urges the public to keep a distance of 1 meter from others to dodge the virus. The European Union recommends a distance of 1.5 meters and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests 2 meters, he told ANC. 

When someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain the virus. If one is too close, he or she can breathe in the droplets, including the SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19 if the person has the disease, according to the WHO. 

“Nowhere in the world literature that I went around to read that less than 1 meter would be beneficial in terms of risk reduction for prevention of COVID,” said Leachon. 

“Physical distancing that is lower in public transport may actually trigger surge [of cases] in the National Capital Region,” he added. 

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There is no study showing that protection against the virus will stay the same if physical distancing is reduced while one is wearing a face shield and mask, said Dr. Edsel Salvaña, a clinical associate professor at the Philippine General Hospital. 

"Hindi naman po natin sinasabing hindi puwede. Pero dahil wala pa tayong magandang ebidensya, siguro dapat hindi po biglaan dahil baka magkaroon tayo ng problema talaga,” said Salvana, who is also director of University of the Philippines Manila's Institute of Molecular Biology. 

(We are not saying that it is not possible. But because we have no good evidence yet, perhaps it should not have been sudden because we might have a problem.)

"Kung magkamali po tayo, marami talagang madidisgrasya," he told ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo. 

(If we are wrong, many could suffer.) 

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Allowing passengers from different areas to cluster within less than a meter increases the risk of virus transmission despite wearing protective gear, said Dr. Rontgene Solante, head of adult infectious diseases department in San Lazaro Hospital.

"When you have crowding of people na galing sa iba’t ibang lugar (from different places) then you have possible clustering of different exposed individuals that can somehow be in that part/area that increases risk of transmission," he told ABS-CBN's Teleradyo in a separate interview.

"Ang (The) minimum protection is really 1 meter or more distance. 'Pag ibaba mo yan (if you lower it), higher ang risk even if you’re wearing a face shield and a face mask."

Regulators eased distancing rules because Metro Manila and nearby areas are gearing for "the ‘new normal’ where more workers are expected to return to their re-opened work places and more businesses are expected to resume operations,” Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said last week. 

If the government wanted to serve more commuters, it should have let more public vehicles back on the road instead, including jeepneys, said Leachon. 

There is a 95-percent reduction of COVID-19 spread in vehicles with an open airflow like jeeps and non-airconditioned buses, he said. 

Opening the economy “should not be at the expense of sacrificing the health standards,” Leachon said.