Experts fear 230,000 coronavirus cases if MECQ is lifted in Mega Manila

Researchers warned against easing quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, as they estimated that nationwide cases may reach 230,000 by the end of August if these areas go back to general community quarantine (GCQ). 

Researchers from the Octa research group of experts, which is studying the coronavirus outbreak in the Philippines, recommended that the Philippine government extend the current modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) in Mega Manila for the next 15 days from August 18. This proposal aims “to reverse the surge in these areas.” 

“If we lift the MECQ prematurely, we will be need to deal with the outbreak in the NCR entering a phase of uncontrolled and very rapid growth,” they warned. 

The MECQ in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, and Laguna – earlier put in place last August 4 – is set to lapse on August 18. The capital region was supposed to remain under GCQ from August 1 to 15, but medical workers pleaded with President Rodrigo Duterte to tighten quarantine restrictions as cases soared. 

The researchers noted the daily number of new cases in the Philippines has increased from some 3,649 new cases from August 2 to 8, to 3,886 in the last week. 

The group earlier projected cases in the Philippines could reach 150,000 by the end of the month. With the increase in new cases seen in the last few weeks, however, researchers noted the projection climbed further to 250,000 if no MECQ was put in place. 

If the current MECQ is kept in place, they said estimated nationwide cases may reach 210,000 as opposed to 230,000 if Mega Manila reverts to GCQ. 

Metro Manila surge 'real'

Researchers pressed the national government to focus on response in Metro Manila, underscoring the “pandemic surge in the National Capital Region is real.” 

The capital region, which currently holds about 55% of total cases to date, has been the epicenter of the outbreak since the coronavirus crisis began. Getting infections under control in the area is key to getting the outbreak under control in the country, they said. 

“Controlling the local pandemic in the capital will dramatically improve our control of the pandemic in the rest of the country especially since many if not most of the COVID-19 cases in the provinces were imported from the nation’s capital,” the group said. 

In zoning in on the capacity of health facilities to care for patients, the Octa group warned occupancy in hospital beds and intensive care units in Metro Manila were still in critical levels. 

The virus likewise showed no signs of slowing down as the 7-day positivity rate – or share of patients who test positive for the disease – was now at 17%. The number is far from the the World Health Organization’s recommendation to obtain a positivity rate of 5% or less to control the pandemic.

The groups recommended the extension of MECQ as they pointed to Cebu, where an enhanced community quarantine saw the surge in the province “successfully reversed.” 

“The government should learn from the lessons of Cebu. Extending MECQ while economically painful will result in a more durable opening later especially with the testing, tracing, isolation, and treatment capability in place,” they said. 

Payoffs

The Octa group empathized extending the MECQ will allow local government units (LGUs), businesses, hospitals, and health workers the breathing room to strengthen their response to the ongoing outbreak. 

For one, keeping current quarantine restrictions will ensure that hospitals and health workers are not overwhelmed by the increasing COVID-19 cases over the next few weeks. LGUs will also be able to improve their tracking, quarantine, and isolation procedures for the zoning lockdown strategy earlier approved by the coronavirus task force. 

On the part of the national government, the Octa group emphasized that testing, tracing, treatment, and the establishment of more quarantine and other isolation facilities must be strengthened further. No matter the quarantine level, they reminded a solid test, trace, and treat strategy, has always been the centerpiece of the response to the pandemic. 

“These testing, contact tracing, isolation, and treatment capability that we have now will not be enough if we continue to loosen restrictions without a marked and sustained decline in the number of new cases, the positivity rate and hospital utilization,” they said. 

In striking a balance between opening the economy and curbing the spread of the virus, the group appealed to the government to see the MECQ extension was “not an act against the economy.” 

“We wish to emphasize that we are faced with a choice not between the economy or public health but between a less or more costly disruption among ordinary Filipinos. Premature lifting of the MECQ could squander our gains and bring us to square one, making our interventions more costly and eroding the trust of the people,” they said. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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