MANILA - There were so many potential COVID-19 superspreader events during the holiday season of 2020 and early January, that many feared cases of the dreaded viral disease would spike to start the new year.
There was early evidence of a Filipino public just looking for excuses to gather en masse for the holiday season, including an alleged text blast from the Health Department giving the green light for outdoor Christmas parties.
There was the Feast of the Black Nazarene, wherein thousands of devotees flocked to the Quiapo Church in spite of warnings against large gatherings and strict health protocols. The government was reduced to appealing to the faithful to self-isolate after their pilgrimage.
There was also the Baguio party of Tim Yap, supposedly arranged to promote tourism in the summer capital of the Philippines. It was attended by celebrities, and Contact Tracing Czar, Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong.
Last but not least, there was the emergence of new COVID-19 variants, and the arrival in the Philippines of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom.
The ABS-CBN Data Analytics team broke down all the numbers from an eventful January 2021. Here’s what was found.
Confirmed COVID-19 cases spiked in January, hitting over 51,000 for the month, from more than 42,000 in December. The uptrend is disappointing, but it wasn’t a full-on regression to the worst levels of 2020. It was certainly much lower than the peak of the pandemic in August. The 7-day moving average shown by the blue line here also gives us another reason to be optimistic. The trend for January only surged higher at the start of the month, before plateauing.
Breaking down the confirmed cases, we find that the cases found in the National Capital Region have actually been steady over the last several months, including January. NCR confirmed cases are tracked in this chart by the darker bar graphs. The data suggests any Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in Metro Manila did not result in higher COVID-19 cases. The Feast of the Black Nazarene may also be off the hook, however it is unclear how many out-of-town devotees made it to Quiapo Church this year.
The positivity rate, or the percentage of all individuals tested that turn out positive for the virus, has been a key metric in measuring the fight against the disease. The World Health Organization recommends a positivity rate of lower than 5 percent, sustained over 2 weeks, before governments even consider easing mobility restrictions and reopening their economies. The positivity rate for the Philippines rose to 5.6 percent in January, versus 5.0 percent in December last year.
Regional positivity rate data show the National Capital Region wasn’t to blame for the January uptick. Metro Manila in fact was one of the best performers, averaging a positivity rate of 3.8 percent over the last 2 weeks of January. It was in fact one of only three regions with a positivity rate below 5 percent for the period. It is important to note that the geographic tagging of COVID-19 tests is based on labs, not swabs, but the results are still very telling.
The worst positivity rates were seen in CARAGA, with a rate of 18.3 percent, and the Cordillera Administrative Region, with 15.3 percent. CAR of course is home to Baguio, and the aforementioned Tim Yap party. A new variant of COVID-19 was also detected in Bontoc, Mountain Province, further complicating anti-COVID efforts.
Positivity rates of over 10 percent were also seen in Region 11 or the Davao Region, and Region 10 or Northern Mindanao. Region 12 or Soccsksargen, and Region 8 or Eastern Visayas had positivity rates of over 9 percent.
This chart shows us the bed occupancy rates of intensive care units dedicated to COVID-19 patients across the regions. The highest occupancy rates are found in Region 11, classified as high risk with occupancy greater than 70 percent; and Region 2, classified as moderate risk with occupancy at greater than 60 percent. The Davao Region and Cagayan Valley both had positivity rates of above 7 percent. CAR had the third highest ICU bed occupancy rate as of the end of January. That could get worse considering it had the second worst positivity rate in the last two weeks of January.
The biggest concern of course is the number of reported COVID-19 deaths. This chart shows a clear uptrend in January. It isn’t tapering off, and it isn’t plateauing. The 7-day moving average blue line in the chart is trending higher. The case fatality rate of the Philippines has hit over 2 percent, its highest level in six months. The Health Department says some of the deaths were reported late, but the overall trend remains upward, and alarming.
As always, it is important to note that the data, as provided by the Philippine Department of Health, is only as good as the testing. More tests provide a more accurate picture of the overall pandemic in the Philippines. In January, testing increased to an average of 34,173 per day, from 31,649 per day in December last year. This is unfortunately still lower than the peak in September, when daily testing was closer to 40,000. It is also unusual since the DOH had been busy accrediting more laboratories to help testing, and the number of operational labs had increased as a result.
The January COVID-19 data tell us that reported COVID deaths are rising, and COVID cases are increasing outside Metro Manila. The potential superspreader events in the National Capital Region did not produce as big a spike in cases as many had feared, and the trend is in fact steady in Metro Manila. Meanwhile, high positivity rates were observed in places like Cordillera, Davao, and CARAGA. An increasing positivity rate was also seen in Region 7 where Cebu is. It is a microcosm of the global fight against COVID. Health protocols and monitoring cannot be focused on certain areas alone. Equal effort must be ensured so that COVID-19 can be eradicated everywhere at the same time.
The government says it is working to vaccinate the entire adult population of the Philippines to help normalize the situation in the country. The January data show vaccines must also be disbursed to regions outside NCR, where COVID positivity rates are now spiking.