MANILA, Philippines — The government has decided to keep the current quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila in place and expanded the curbs to neighboring Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite provinces for 14 days in a bid to suppress a surge in coronavirus infections.
In an online news briefing on Sunday, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, besides keeping general community quarantine in Metro Manila up to April 4, decided to impose additional restrictions to deal with the surge during its meeting on Saturday.
Some of the additional restrictions, Roque said, were similar to those that had already been imposed by the task force itself and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), including a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., age restriction on people who may go out, and suspension of mass gatherings.
Before the task force’s latest decision, Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite were on modified general community quarantine, the least restrictive level of coronavirus lockdown.
Despite pleas for stronger action by the government, the task force has decided against a hard lockdown, Roque said, referring to enhanced community quarantine, the strictest quarantine level that was imposed on the entire island of Luzon last year.
President Rodrigo Duterte has approved the task force’s recommendations, Roque said.
The Philippines is battling a resurgence of the coronavirus, recording nearly 8,000 new infections daily in recent weeks, which are heavily putting pressure on the country’s health-care system.
On Sunday, the Department of Health (DOH) logged 7,757 additional infections, bringing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country to 663,794 overall.
The DOH declared 15,288 people with mild or no symptoms as recovered after completing a 14-day quarantine, pushing the total number of COVID-19 survivors in the country to 577,754. But 39 more patients had died, it said, raising the death toll to 12,968.
Left were 73,072 active cases, of which 95 percent were mild, 2.3 percent asymptomatic, 0.58 percent moderate, 1.1 percent severe, and 1 percent critical.
With the “explosive” rise in infections, the independent group of researchers OCTA said on the weekend that Metro Manila hospitals would run out of COVID-19 beds by the first week of April.
A measure of virus transmission speed is its reproduction number, which in Metro Manila is 1.95, meaning an infected person infects nearly two others.
“Our modeling suggests that with the current reproduction number hovering around 1.95, we expect both total bed and [intensive care unit] capacity to reach full 100-percent occupancy by the first week of April,” OCTA Research said in its latest monitoring report.
“Reducing the reproduction rate to 1.5 delays this critical threshold by about one to two weeks to the middle of [April],” the group said.
“Unless the national government and [the local governments] take drastic and immediate action to significantly reduce the reproduction number of the surge in Metro Manila, we should expect our hospital[s] and medical front-liners to be overwhelmed within a period of several weeks, just around and after Easter,” it said.
Philippine General Hospital in Manila, one of only three COVID-19 referral hospitals in the country, has reached intensive-care capacity, and converted some rooms to intensive care units to admit more COVID-19 patients.
The hospital’s health workers are nearing exhaustion. “We may eventually experience a shortage in staff caring for COVID-19 patients because some of our health-care workers are sick or under quarantine due to exposure,” hospital spokesperson Jonas del Rosario said in a radio interview on Sunday.
A common recommendation for the suppression of the surge is a hard lockdown, which the government has rejected even before the flare-up in infections, saying the economy, which contracted by 9.5 percent last year due to the pandemic, can no longer take another shutdown.
Announcing the task force’s latest decision on Sunday, Roque said the economy would remain open. “You can still go to work,” he said, but added that some establishments—including driving schools, movie theaters, leisure arcades, libraries, archives, museums and cultural centers—would remain closed.
Even street vendors and small stores will be allowed to operate, Roque said, since they are considered economic activities.
But all social events in the tourism industry remain suspended, although open-air tourist attractions are allowed to operate, Roque said.
He said Metro Manilans should cancel their Holy Week travel plans.
The 17 local governments in Metro Manila have imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. to reduce movement and stem the spread of the virus. People below 18 years old and above 65 are not allowed to go out. Pregnant women and people suffering from illnesses are ordered to stay at home, but they can go out to buy essentials.
Exempted from the restrictions on movement are health workers; government officials and workers in essential industries; emergency responders; journalists; people going to the airport for international travel, and returning overseas Filipino workers.
Roque said Metro Manila residents returning from the provinces and nonresidents returning to their provinces would also be allowed to travel.
Public transportation will be allowed to operate following guidelines set by the Department of Transportation, he said.
—WITH REPORTS FROM DONA Z. PAZZIBUGAN AND MEG ADONIS
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