The country notched its highest single-day increase in coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) cases Friday, with 7,103 new infections recorded.
The figure eclipsed the 6,958 cases tallied on Aug. 10, 2020, according to the Department of Health (DoH).
The new cases pushed the total number of cases to 648,066. The 73,264 active cases were also the highest since August.
Total recoveries were at 561,902, and the death toll was at 12,900.
Alarmed by the surge, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged the government to ramp up efforts to prevent hospital occupancy rates from exceeding capacity.
WHO Philippines Country Representative Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe recommended implementing more stringent localized lockdowns, limiting attendance at public gatherings as well as in restaurants, and urging local government units to discourage residents from intermingling.
“We need to do everything possible to ensure that the occupancy rates do not exceed those critical levels and the health care workers are not exhausted and the load will become too difficult for them to manage,” Abeyasinghe told a briefing on Friday.
He noted that aside from the emergence of new Covid-19 variants in the country, the uptick might be caused by the people getting lax in observing minimum health standards, their confidence boosted by the arrival of vaccines.
“The optimism that the vaccines brought have resulted in a decreased compliance in the public health measures…. We seemed to have relaxed a little bit, and that relaxation appears to have driven and created room for increased transmission,” Abeyasinghe said.
Returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are also a factor, he said.
Abeyasinghe said it was still unclear if the newly discovered P.3 variant was responsible for the increased transmission or increased severity of disease.
Abeyasinghe said the 900,000 additional doses of AstraZeneca vaccines under the Covax Facility were tentatively scheduled to arrive next week.
On Friday, Octa Research urged the government to enforce either a “hard” general community quarantine (GCQ) or a “soft” modified community quarantine (MECQ) to contain the new Covid-19 surge.
In a press briefing, OCTA fellow professor Ranjit Rye said imposing minimum public standards was important, but these would not be enough to address the “record-breaking” rise that could overwhelm the country’s health care system in the next few weeks.
Rye said the government would need to reduce mobility through a “circuit breaker lockdown” in the form of a “hard GCQ” or “soft MECQ.”
Under a hard GCQ, a significant percentage of government workers will be allowed to work from home, quarantine passes will be issued only to employees, and attending social gatherings and dining in restaurants will be discouraged. Mass transportation will still be available for workers.
Rye said if a two-week, intensive GCQ fails to bring down the reproduction rate, now at 1.9, a soft MECQ could be tried out.
Under a soft MECQ, operations of government and industries will continue, but there will be stricter mobility restrictions. Malls and groceries and other essential businesses will continue to operate but at limited capacity. All social gatherings will be banned but mass transportation will continue.
“If we do this for two or three weeks, we can be assured the transmission rate will be reduced and we will be open for another four or five months. It makes good sense if we suffer for 2 to 3 weeks then we open up for a few months,” he said in English and Filipino.
Rye also stressed the need for the government to finish the vaccination of health workers.
“We need to accelerate the vaccination of our health care workers. I know we are in the midst of a surge; it’s complicating our vaccination program,” he said.
Rye encouraged medical frontliners to get themselves inoculated with any vaccines available.
Octa Research fellow Guido David repeated his call for the government to prioritize vaccination in Metro Manila or the National Capital Region (NCR).
“If we focus on NCR and perhaps the surrounding regions, we can vaccine 7 to 8 million, a much lower number, and we could possibly achieve herd immunity in NCR,” David said.
The government plans to finish the vaccination of 1.7 million medical frontliners by the middle of April, according to vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson has misgivings about an “open-ended,” ECQ-type lockdown.
Lacson said that while suggestions for stricter lockdowns might make sense at this time, such lockdowns should be time-bound to protect a still-battered economy.
“I would support a time-bound ECQ-type lockdown but only in areas with an unusually high number of Covid infections, so as not to further punish an already suffering economy. For now, these may include identified areas in Metro Manila, Calabarzon and Central Visayas as the daily records would indicate,” Lacson said.
The time-bound nature will allow the business sector to “plan in advance their way forward and make adjustments in their business activities like production, marketing and the like,” he said in an interview on ANC.
Lacson said the bulk of the rollout of vaccines should be concentrated in these areas as well.
In a surprising turnaround, the Philippines is now allowing all Filipino citizens, including non-overseas Filipino workers, to enter the country.
The National Task Force Against Covid-19 (NTF) revised an earlier memorandum regarding pandemic-related restrictions on international travel.
In Memorandum Circular 6 dated March 18, the NTF clarified that all Filipino citizens, including those who are not OFWs, will be allowed in.
The entry of certain foreign nationals is still suspended from March 22 to April 21, according to the circular.
The new circular revised a document it released on March 16 that allowed only OFWs and not ordinary returning overseas Filipinos into the country.
Foreigners exempted from the travel restrictions are diplomats and members of international organizations and their dependents 9(c) or 47(a)(2) visa at the time of entry; foreign nationals involved in medical repatriation; foreign seafarers under the “Green Lanes” program for crew change; foreign spouses and children of Filipino citizens with valid visas at the time of entry; and emergency, humanitarian and other analogous cases approved by the NTF.
With CATHERINE S. VALENTE and JAVIER JOE ISMAEL