MECQ extension highly unlikely, says Palace

Christina Mendez - The Philippine Star
MECQ extension highly unlikely, says Palace
President Rodrigo Duterte lamented the continuing rise of COVID-19 cases, but stressed that the government needs to ease quarantine restrictions to improve the economy.
The STAR / Edd Gumban, file

MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang yesterday hinted at the possibility of returning Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces to general community quarantine (GCQ) status after the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) lapses on Aug. 18.

President Duterte lamented the continuing rise of COVID-19 cases, but stressed that the government needs to ease quarantine restrictions to improve the economy.

Duterte said he is caught between the “devil and the deep blue sea” as he weighs the health and economic impact of the pandemic.

“Recently we have seen both the positive and saddening developments in our continuing battle against COVID-19,” he said on Monday night.

“Although we are consistently adding to and improving our testing capability as well as enhancing our capacity for contact tracing, we have also seen a continuous rise in COVID cases especially in the National Capital Region,” Duterte said.

The President reiterated the need for everyone to comply with government protocols while Palace officials gave assurance that the healthcare system is ready to tackle the disease anew with increased number of ICU beds, protective equipment, quarantine and isolation facilities.

Out of frustration, Duterte said he could not help but think of easing out of the lockdown.

“Doctors want to lock down an area with reported cases. The percentage of people affected in a community is not given any figure on how many they are,” he said.

Duterte stressed the role of the police and the military in assisting the government in the fight against COVID-19.

He allayed fears uniformed personnel are being used against the people for intimidation.

“The police cannot be everywhere and anywhere all the time. The military is not part of the governance yet in the matter of using force or at least intimidating you with soldiers, far from it, we do not have that plan,” he said.

Duterte said he would not think twice about tapping the police and the military once COVID-19 cases spiral out of control.

‘Highly unlikely’

Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said it is “highly unlikely” that MECQ will be retained after Aug. 18 since there is a need to boost economic activity and allow people to return to work.

“I think it will be difficult to retain Metro Manila under MECQ because we are out of funds for social amelioration,” Roque said in Filipino.

While Duterte has yet to announce his decision, Roque said the President is very transparent on the problem after the country was reverted to MECQ last week on request of medical workers.

While it is clear to the President that the ECQ is the most effective way to lower the statistics, Roque said the government does not have enough funds to do it.

If the government has more resources to cover the social fund, Roque said, it would have been possible to maintain the general lockdown.

Faced with the challenge of tracing persons exposed to COVID-19 patients, Duterte will again tap the Philippine National Police (PNP) to do the job.

The move is intended to lower the quarantine status to GCQ starting Aug. 19.

Duterte said police personnel would assist local government units and health officials in tracking down suspected COVID-19 patients, especially in-between local boundaries.

“Contact tracing means that the people who are doing the actual tracing will have to travel to the place where the person in question resides. So they need mobility,” he said.

Since the PNP has service vehicles, Duterte said these should be allowed for use of local officials and designated contact tracers in an area.

“The police will bring them to the boundary, where they will be met by another group of officers including the barangay captains who will escort them to where the people are,” he said.

“That would be the fastest way of doing the tracing. If the police officers have money and vehicle, the better. But if none, they have to sacrifice and do something to solve the problem.”

Slight decline

Citing reports culled by experts from the University of the Philippines from Aug. 3 to 9, Roque noted the slight decline in cases in the past month – 3,698 on July 25 and 3,194 new cases from Aug. 2 to 9.

“There is a big slide in the number, but there are many cases. The  reproduction number or R-0 (R-naught) is continuously declining. That’s good news since R-0 represents the number of people who become COVID positive,” he said.

During the first week of July, Roque noted that UP experts reported that R-0 was placed at 1.65 or translated to more or less two individuals infected through exposure to one COVID positive patient. Statistics showed R-0 at 1.12 or at least one person getting infected per case.

“Our target should be less than one,” he said.

The average rate in the National Capital Region peaked at 1.81 from July 4 to 10, but eventually became 1.18 from Aug. 3 to 9.

Fake contact tracers

Meanwhile, the Department of Health (DOH) warned the public against unscrupulous individuals posing as contact tracers to get personal information.

In an advisory, the DOH said they received information that such individuals are calling unsuspecting people and extorting money from them.

“The public is advised to be vigilant and not entertain these calls. Do not put your security at risk,” it said.

The agency said it “does not have a contact tracing team” as this task is with the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the lead agency in contact-tracing activities.

The public should verify with their Barangay Health Emergency Teams (BHERTs) if there are people who introduce themselves as contact tracing teams of the local government units.

The DOH advised those who will be getting such calls to take note of the number and block it.

The public is urged to report such incidents to the DOH’s call center hotline 8651-7800 local 5003/5004 or email [email protected].

Wake up call

The nearly 7,000 COVID-19 cases a day should serve as a wake-up call that the present strategies could not contain the virus, according to Sen. Risa Hontiveros said.

Hontiveros said the two-week MECQ, which will end in a week, appeared to be an ineffective strategy in addressing the pandemic.

Hontiveros said she had pointed out that the lockdown could not be effective if it would not be complemented with a health-heavy response.

“We need to test, trace, treat and isolate more aggressively. We need to make testing available and accessible to at-risk communities and ‘hotspot’ areas. We need to hire more contact tracers and put an effective system to it. We need to increase the capacity of our hospitals, protect our frontliners and improve community-based care,” she said.

Fake news

Meanwhile, DILG Secretary Eduardo Año vowed to file charges against people behind an infographic circulating on Facebook, claiming he urged couples to practice physical distancing after having sex.

Año denied issuing such statement, saying he will never tolerate any individual or group peddling fake news on social media.

He said people behind the false and derogatory information, which seeks to impugn the DILG’s credibility, should be held accountable for their actions.

“We at the DILG will investigate the matter at hand and will go after the propagators of fake news with renewed intensity,” he said in a statement.

Año earlier urged people to practice physical distancing and wear face masks and face shields even at home in order to be safe against COVID-19.

He said this is an option after seeing COVID-19 patients belonging to the same households confined in hospitals.

Instead of spreading false information on social media, Año urged Filipinos to help the government contain the pandemic.  — Alexis Romero, Sheila Crisostomo, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Emmanuel Tupas

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