Philippines could face India-like surge, doctor warns, as infections pass 1 million

  • Dr Rodrigo Ong of independent OCTA Research Group think tank said the country was at the ‘same crosspoint’ as India in its fight against virus
  • Warning comes as Philippines considers cutting quarantine times for returning travellers and easing other restrictions

Medical experts have warned that the Philippines could face a surge in coronavirus infections similar to that which engulfed Indiathis month, amid reports of Covid-19 patients spilling out into hospital corridors in parts of Metropolitan Manila as the nationwide tally of cases crossed the one million mark.

Dr Rodrigo Ong of the independent OCTA Research Group think tank, which produces forecasts on the virus’ spread, said the Philippines was now at the “same crosspoint” of about 10,000 cases per day that India had reached when authorities there decided to lift restrictions on large gatherings as they thought the virus was under control.

He said the epidemic in the Philippines was in a “delicate balance” as of Tuesday, with more than 80 per cent of the country’s hospital beds occupied. 

“As we move towards the end of April and the possibility of further easing quarantine restrictions, this delicate balance may tip over to completely overwhelm the health care capacities,” Ong said.

Patients are treated outside a government hospital in Quezon City that declared overcapacity on Monday amid rising numbers of Covid-19 infections in Metro Manila. Photo: Reuters

According to Department of Health figures, the Philippines recorded 7,204 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, down from a daily high of 15,310 on April 2. 

But OCTA Research is calling for the country’s lockdown-like restrictions, known locally as community quarantines, to be maintained so the rate of new infections can fall further, easing pressure on hospitals and their staff.

Dr Anthony Leachon, a former adviser to the government’s Covid-19 task force who was sacked for openly criticising Manila’s pandemic response, told This Week In Asia that restrictions may not be enough to curb a fresh spike in infections as vaccinations were the real “silver bullet”.

“Even if we maintain the strict lockdowns [the crisis] can even worsen with the [virus] variants,” he said, referring to the mutant Covid-19 strains that have emerged in Britain, South Africa, Brazil, India and elsewhere.

President Rodrigo Duterte says his government has bought enough vaccines to inoculate 70 million people – thought to be the number required to reach so-called herd immunity – but many of those jabs will only arrive in the Philippines towards the end of this year at the earliest, according to Leachon.

So far, only 1.7 million Filipinos have received at least one vaccine dose, former health secretary Manuel Dayrit told online news site Rappler on Monday.

Vaccination problems aside, Leachon said the government was not doing enough testing, contact tracing or isolating of those who are infected. 

He further criticised Health Secretary Francisco Duque III for delaying a ban on travellers from India – announced only on Tuesday night – on the grounds that the variant which is thought to have emerged in the country had not been detected locally.

Officials in the Philippines have been quick to defend their handling of the health crisis, pointing out that the situation is much worse in other countries.

A health worker collects a Covid-19 swab sample from a man who lives with someone who has tested positive for the disease in Quezon City earlier this month. Photo: Reuters

Yet there have undoubtedly been “some lapses”, as infectious disease specialist Dr Edsel Maurice Salvana told Duterte’s Covid-19 task force on April 21 when discussing screening returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) for the virus.

Salvana, a molecular biologist and task force adviser, cautioned Duterte against Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III’s money-saving proposal of testing OFWs immediately upon their return and cutting their quarantine period to five days if their PCR test comes back negative.

“If somebody gets infected in transit, on the plane, [then] if you test upon arrival, the test won’t be positive [because] it usually takes three to five days,” Salvana said in the meeting, which was later televised.

“But based on the Department of Health data … there are still about 40 per cent of people who test positive on the seventh day [after] arrival.”

As a compromise, Salvana suggested that if an OFW remains without symptoms during a 10-day quarantine, testing could be waived and the OFW could go home – something Dr Ong questioned on his Facebook page, noting that other places were enforcing two- or three-week quarantines in response to the new virus variants.

Ong said that “while the number of new cases is decreasing as a result of the [community quarantine], we must still maintain the integrity of our borders against Covid-19 because even if a single positive case gets through, the effects could be devastating”.

In December, an OFW who returned to the Philippines from Britain was found by the health department to have infected 42 people with the B117 variant of the virus that first emerged in the UK – despite testing negative for Covid-19 the day after arrival.

At the time of publication, Duterte had yet to decide whether to change the quarantine protocol for returning OFWs.

Article & Images from South China Morning Post

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