Bacolod lifts RT-PCR requirement for fully vaccinated inbound travelers

Bacolod City Mayor Evelio Leonardia signed on Wednesday, October 13, an executive order (EO) lifting the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test requirements for all fully vaccinated visitors coming in through land, sea, or air travel.

The City Information Office released EO 49, series of 2021, early Wednesday evening. The order still imposes a negative RT-PCR test result, valid within 72 hours prior to arrival, for those not yet fully vaccinated.

All travelers still need to submit the online BacTrac registration, online Health Declaration, SPass Travel Coordination Permit, and a valid personal ID.

The move follows directives from Iloilo City and the provinces of  Iloilo and Negros Occidental to ease travel restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 between Panay and Negros islands.

Emergency Operations Center head Em Ang said on Wednesday that the new EO would cover all visitors coming from other places. The city will retain the no-quarantine-period policy for visitors or returning residents, she added.

The city government believes the move would spur economic recovery by letting trade and people move faster, Ang said.

The business community and even politicians from rival political slates in the city agreed with the move. 

"There's still no safe environment now," Dr. Julius Drilon, director of the Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Hospital (CLMMRH), told Rappler. 

Drilon was puzzled by the rationale behind the move because of Bacolod's high-risk, alert level 4 status.

The city government's decision, he noted, comes less than two weeks since it hit 231 new cases on October 1, more than a hundred cases higher than September's average of 119 new cases.

"Our positivity rates are consistently high," Drilon stressed. 

Deaths in September were at 158, up from 57 in August and double the old record of 79 in the same month in 2020, Ang told Rappler on October 3.

Economy in doldrums

Recent national surveys showed record numbers of people concerned about COVID-19 infection. But business leaders and politicians believe easing travel regulations is a requirement for economic recovery.

"People have to move to spend and business people will welcome one less expense," said Frank Carbon, chief executive officer of the Metro Bacolod Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

In a telephone interview with Rappler on Wednesday, Carbon said 18 months of curbs on travel have hurt the small and medium businesses that comprise 7 of 10 enterprises in the city, as well as the bigger corporations that import and export products to other parts of the country or abroad.

"It's about time we remove that requirement," said Carbon, who is also vice president for the Visayas of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"Iloilo's vaccination rate is very good, more than half of its target population, and Bacolod is catching up. That's what we've been waiting for," he said.

In August, Carbon told Rappler that the pandemic had created a severe economic storm, with businesses suffering a 70% slump in sales and half of the city's workforce losing their jobs.

Carbon said the city can learn from Metro Manila mayors.

"No more lockdown and they're doing well. Also the same in Cebu and in Negros Occidental," he pointed out.

"Let's face it. The economy of Negros Occidental cannot survive without infusion of money. We need Panay (the island where Iloilo City is located) to survive," the business leader added.

Safeguards, concerns

Former councilor Caesar Distrito, the running mate of Leonardia's main mayoralty race rival Albee Benitez, said he welcomed the move as long as the local government remained vigilant about observing health protocols in the city.

"Many want to come home but cannot afford the RT-PCR tests," Distrito told Rappler on Wednesday. "Many small entrepreneurs also cannot afford to add more to current high travel costs," he added. 

Distrito, however, said the city government could invest in free antigen tests for returning residents and travelers.

"We need to balance the need for a better business environment and protecting the populace," the former councilor said in a telephone interview. "Free antigen tests and a few days of home quarantine is a good compromise."

At the CLMMRH, which continues to struggle from the influx of severe and critical COVID-19 cases, Drilon worried that a sudden reopening of travel could worsen the city's current health emergency.

INFLUX. The first week of October is among the worst for the Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Regional Hospital because of the influx of many severe and critical COVID-19 cases.

Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Hospital

Drilon said the hospital now has "less COVID-19 cases coming but those who are brought in are in severe to critical state and need more intensive care areas and equipment."

The CLMMRH's latest COVID-19 update said the city's positivity rate, or the percentage of positive tests, remained at 30% on October 12, while Negros Occidental's was at 31%. 

The average daily attack rate (ADAR) in Bacolod, a city with a population of 600,000, remained at 21.03 per 10,000 population. That is still three times the critical level under Department of Health (DOH) guidelines.

Most Western Visayas provinces, including Negros Occidental, have been placed on Alert Level 3 following improvements in their two-week COVID-19 rates. Bacolod remains on Alert Level 4. The province also remains under the high-risk category despite its alert level dropping by a grade.

The doctor said he would be more comfortable if the city strengthens  testing and contact tracing systems – the basics of pandemic management.

He shared statistics from the city's epidemiology and surveillance unit from September 27 to October 6.

Data from September 27 to October 3 showed daily positive rates ranging from a low of 25.2% to a high of 57.9%, or an average of 38.7% with 494 positive results from 1,275 tests.

The numbers from October 4 to 6 were worse, at 40.22% positivity rate.

On October 9, the CLMMRH issued a warning, saying "almost 40% of the specimens collected by Bacolod City Epidemiological Surveillance Unit (BCESU) turned out to be positive for COVID-19 from October 1-7, 2021."

The DOH Western Visayas tracker also showed that the city's positivity rate has not gone lower than 30% from October 4 to October 12.

"The high positivity rate from BCESU samples indicates inadequate testing," Drilon stressed. "This can imply that there are individuals roaming around the city that are asymptomatic or do not show any symptoms for COVID-19." –