Government eyes phased, targeted lifting of COVID quarantine

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star
Government eyes phased, targeted lifting of COVID quarantine
Members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases will meet today to discuss possible scenarios and measures to be enforced once quarantine ends.
Miguel De Guzman

MANILA, Philippines — The government is eyeing a phase-by-phase lifting of the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine as it considers heeding the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO) against abruptly lifting lockdowns around the world to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Members of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases will meet today to discuss possible scenarios and measures to be enforced once quarantine ends.

While the task force has yet to decide whether to extend or lift the quarantine, its spokesman, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, said the Philippines has to consider the WHO’s reminder about the risks of lifting lockdowns prematurely.

“We have to follow, if ever, the advice of the WHO, that we cannot be abrupt on this. So one of the options being eyed is phase-by-phase (lifting). Maybe it should be targeted. We have to choose (which establishments) should reopen and what workforce would be allowed to work, what transport systems would be allowed,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles told radio station dzBB yesterday.

“We have these kinds of guidelines that should be imposed and once they are approved by President Duterte, we would have new dos and don’ts,” said Nograles, who heads the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).

The quarantine started on March 17 and was supposed to end on April 12, but Duterte decided to extend it to give the government more time to conduct tests and strengthen the country’s health system.

The government warned yesterday that strict measures would be reimposed if there is a resurgence in COVID cases after the quarantine is lifted.

Nograles assured the public that the government would act swiftly in the event of a resurgence of coronavirus cases.

“There is a caveat... If the numbers increase, if there is a new spike or surge or resurgence or second wave or relapse, whatever terminology will be used, the bottom line is if we see another increase in the number of cases, we have to be prepared. The government has to decide quickly,” he said.

“We need to be strict again, implement again the enhanced community quarantine, either as a whole or in particular localities. Our action should be swift,” he added.

The IATF spokesman said the task force is expected to discuss today which industries and sectors would be allowed to resume operations, whether the quarantine should still cover the entire island of Luzon or only selected areas.

The government, according to Nograles, will consider five parameters in deciding whether to lift or extend the quarantine: the epidemiological curve or the acceleration or deceleration of COVID-19 cases; health aspects, including capacity to test, isolate and treat patients, and facilities; social aspect; economic aspect and security aspect.

“We do not know yet what will happen (today). Hopefully, we will arrive at a consensus. Whatever recommendations to be presented, ultimately, it will be President Duterte who will decide,” he said, adding that regardless of the post-quarantine scenario to be implemented, the wearing of face masks, constant disinfection and social distancing would still be required.

The government is also expected to ramp up the testing of patients under investigation and patients under monitoring tomorrow because of its improved testing capacity, according to the task force spokesman.

Expanded meeting

Sen. Bong Go yesterday confirmed that Duterte will decide this week whether or not to extend or totally or partially lift the quarantine after April 30 amid the continued rise in COVID-19 cases in the country.

Go, chairman of the Senate committee on health, said Duterte is scheduled today to preside over an expanded meeting with IATF members, including health secretaries of previous administrations and other experts.

The senator said the IATF meetings of late were being conducted through Zoom as many officials of the task force have been found positive of the disease. It was not yet clear how the meeting today with Duterte would be done.

“Our situation is really difficult; Filipinos are now pinned down, but I think we must be really strict in the next 11 days until April 30, and I think the President will decide this week whether or not to extend it or loosen it,” Go told dzBB in Filipino. “The coming days will be crucial… The people’s lives and livelihood are at stake.”

If he were to be asked, the senator said he would lean toward “saving lives” even as he admitted that the urgent need to jumpstart the economy is just as compelling.

Go, a member of the joint congressional oversight panel on the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, said he continues to monitor the situation of many Filipinos affected by the quarantine in Luzon as well as in many parts of the country.

Sen. Sonny Angara said he is in favor of “relaxing” the quarantine for specific areas or barangays.

“I suggest a barangay-based quarantine while other establishments, like businesses and industries, transportation, could be opened,” Angara told dzRH.

He said essential retail establishments should also be allowed to open.

The senator, however, said mass testing must be ramped up so that the government can determine which areas are safe from COVID-19.

He cited the case of some parts of northern Japan, where quarantine was lifted and saw a second wave of infections.

Dr. Anthony Leachon, special adviser to the IATF, said the National Task Force on COVID-19 led by Secretary Carlito Galvez, is looking at three scenarios after April 30: a modified community quarantine relaxing measures for “essential workers;” “rolling” lifting of community quarantine by local government units (LGUs) or localized lifting, depending on certain health parameters; and status quo, meaning, extending the quarantine until May 15.

“I believe the second option gives better specificity and is nuanced per LGU. For each LGU, there are massive implications for coping and building capacity to execute. I think a combination of the first and second, if properly timed and well-executed, may address both flattening the curve and getting the economy moving,” Leachon said.

‘Is health system ready?’

For Vice President Leni Robredo, the preparedness of the country’s healthcare system to deal with COVID-19 cases must be among the things that the government must consider in lifting or easing the Luzon-wide quarantine.

“The question is: are we ready to deal (with the virus)? Are hospitals ready, is the government ready, is the healthcare system ready?” Robredo said in her weekly program over dzXL yesterday.

She added that COVID-19 cases could rise again when the lockdown is lifted, according to data.

The Vice President said the government should have used the quarantine, which started on March 17, to prepare the country’s healthcare system for the pandemic.

The WHO had earlier set six conditions for ending a lockdown against COVID-19: the disease transmission is under control; health systems are able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact;” hot spot risks are minimized in vulnerable places such as nursing homes, schools, workplaces; other essential places have established preventive measures; the risk of importing new cases “can be managed;” and communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal.

Robredo, however, said the government must also weigh in the impact of the prolonged lockdown on small businesses.

“The business sector is suffering, even the big companies are suffering too,” she said.

Presidential adviser for entrepreneurship and Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion has proposed a selective quarantine at the barangay level.

Community quarantine, he said, should be extended for barangays with high rates of infection to enable the police and the military to focus on areas most affected.

No total lockdown nationwide

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has dispelled claims that the national government will impose a total lockdown over the entire country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Año said that while expanding the quarantine to areas outside Luzon is “an option,” there would be no total lockdown nationwide.

In an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel, he said it is too early to say what move will the government be taking as it needs more data.

A recommendation to the President is expected to be submitted on April 25 or by the end of the week.

Last week, Duterte threatened that he would impose martial law-like discipline following thousands of quarantine violators tallied by the police.

Año said authorities would not impose martial rule, but they would be deploying additional uniformed personnel to ensure strict implementation of the quarantine. – With Paolo Romero, Edit Regalado, Helen Flores, Romina Cabrera, Evelyn Macairan



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