Don't blame reopening of economy for COVID-19 surge, says Malacañang

Malacañang dismissed criticisms that the Duterte government's push to reopen the economy triggered the record-high surge in COVID-19 cases in the country.

In a press briefing Monday, March 15, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque insisted that the country was able to ward off a virus surge in 2020 until last week, when the Department of Health logged a single-day tally of 5,277 infections, the highest in 6 months.

It was in October 2020 when more businesses were allowed to operate as part of the government’s efforts to address the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Excellent naman talaga tayo sa handling, until this month of March kung saan sumipa ang mga kaso ng COVID-19,” Roque said. (We were really excellent in handling the pandemic until this month of March when COVID cases began rising.)

Roque, who found out the same day that he tested positive for the illness, pinned the blame instead on the entry of COVID-19 variants in the country.

Aside from the more infectious coronavirus mutations originally detected in Britain and South Africa, the Philippines confirmed over the weekend the entry of the COVID-19 variant from Brazil.

Japanese health officials also said on March 12 that they had detected a new COVID-19 variant in a traveler from the Philippines.

"It is in the nature of the virus to mutate," Roque said. "Although I am not a scientist and I am not in a position to conclude, we cannot discount the mutation of the virus as one of the grounds for this surge."

Yet hours later, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told President Rodrigo Duterte that the reopening of the economy is indeed one factor in the spike in cases.

"We think the following are the reasons why cases are rising: Number one, increased mobility, because we loosened quarantine restrictions; second, because we opened big portions of our economy, and this increased mobility, transmission rate, and contact rate," said Duque.

Stricter quarantine protocols?

Roque said that a shift to the Enhanced Community Quarantine, the most stringent lockdown restriction under the Duterte administration, is unlikely for the month of March.

"Napakahirap ng total lockdown," Roque said. "Tinitingnan po natin hindi lang ang tumataas ng kaso kundi pati ang healthcare utilization [rate]. Magtiwala ang taumbayan that we are always guided by data."

(A total lockdown will be difficult... We are looking, not just at the increase in cases but also the healthcare utilization rate. Our countrymen should trust that we are always guided by data.)

In the pandemic task force's process for deciding on quarantine classifications, an upgrade to a stricter quarantine classification is triggered when the hospital capacity to treat COVID-19 patients goes into moderate or critical levels.

Nationwide figures presented by Malacañang on Monday showed that 55% of total intensive care unit (ICU) beds and 71% of ward beds are already occupied.

These numbers however do not reflect local capacity levels, as hospitals in Metro Manila such as St Luke's Medical Center in Taguig City and Quezon City General Hospital reported they are already at full capacity for COVID-19 patients. – with reports from Pia Ranada/