Strict Metro Manila lockdown call not ruled out; next days critical, say health workers

Frontline health workers providing care for COVID-19 patients said on Tuesday, March 16, that they would not rule out calling for a lockdown in Metro Manila once more if the current spike in infections continued to worsen. 

The Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC) – the largest coalition of health groups in the country – stressed the next few days were “critical” in blunting the ongoing surge, as it called on local governments and businesses to ensure communities were safe and allowed for Filipinos to follow health protocols. 

“The next few days are critical for our country. A lockdown should be our last resort. It should not be our first option. Meron pa po tayong magagawa (There are still things we can do [to curb the surge in cases],” said Dr Aileen Espina, a public health and family medicine specialist. 

HPAAC counts among its member groups medical societies that earlier warned in August 2020 that the Philippines needed to recalibrate its response to the pandemic or see the country's health system overwhelmed. It counts some of the country's top medical experts and doctors as members.

Close to critical

Espina said that feedback from health workers in frontline hospitals and other health centers was that cases were so far manageable as the health system had equipped itself and improved since the last peak in cases seen in July to August 2020.  

Espina said the group’s foremost concern right now was to strategize for ways to curb the ongoing surge to avoid reaching a point where a lockdown would once again become necessary. (Read more on HPAAC’s suggestions here.)

Kaya pa ba natin pigilan ang pagdami ng kaso? Kaya pa ba ng mga health workers? Kaya pa ba mag hold on ang ating health care system? Sabi nila ngayon, kaya pa pero hanggang kailan ito kakayanin?” she said. 

(Can we still stop the increase in case? Can the health workers still cope? Can our health system still hold on? They (health workers) are telling us now that they can still manage but until when do we need to keep coping?)

Dr Antonio Dans, an internal medicine specialist and epidemiologist, said that 80% of intensive care units in COVID-19 referral hospitals in Metro Manila were already currently full. If cases continued to increase, he said, the health system may once again reach a critical point and if so, the group would not hesitate to call for a “timeout” or return to stricter quarantine measures once more. 

“We will reserve that call for now and we will not hesitate to call for that kasi kung minsan hindi pa naabot sa statistics, nararamdaman na ng ating mga kasamahan sa frontlines (because sometimes even before it reaches our statistics, our fellow workers on the frontlines already feel this [overwhelmed health system],” Dans said. 

Malapit na. Hindi pa sa ngayon, pero nakikinig kami lagi. Kami unanag sisigaw ng tulong pag nahihirapan na sila,” he added. (It’s close. We’re not there yet, but we are always listening. We will be the first to call for help if they (health workers) are already having a hard time.) 

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the government's coronavirus task force would tackle the possibility of implementing stricter quarantine measures if coronavirus cases continued to increase amid a record-breaking surge in the Philippines. 

Dans said the HPAAC was scheduled to sit with the Department of Health on Tuesday to identify statistics, aside from bed occupancy, that will help identify if health systems were nearing the point of being overwhelmed again. 

Why this matters

A year since the Duterte government implemented a lockdown In Metro Manila, the center of the country’s outbreak, the Philippines is once again seeing a record number of new infections reported daily. 

Unlike the last peak in cases seen in July to August 2020, experts studying the pandemic said the recent spike in cases seen in Metro Manila had been especially concerning as infections were spreading quicker, prompting fears of a more threatening surge in cases. 

If not managed properly, experts warned about 8,000 new cases daily may be seen nationwide. 

The medical community’s earlier call for the Duterte government to declare stricter community quarantine for two weeks in several provinces and Metro Manila – the epicenter of the outbreak – had angered President Rodrigo Duterte last year. 

The President had dared them to stage a “revolution” against him, but nonetheless answered their call as it had been apparent the country’s health system neared breaking point. The 2-week return to a modified enhanced community quarantine likewise helped to stem the spread in cases months afterward. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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