By Jovic Yee
The medical community on Monday warned that the ill-timed decision of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) to gradually reduce physical distancing on public vehicles would only drive up coronavirus infections, especially as the country has yet to see a significant decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases.
The Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 pointed out that while it recognizes the need to further open up the economy, it is “against the relaxation of physical distancing” rules because it is still “too early” to tweak or ease the measures proven to curb the spread of the virus.
‘Many will get sick’
“The question is not should we reduce social distancing or not, but when can we do it. In our view, it is still too early. Cases will likely increase and our recovery will only slow down if we do this now,” said Dr. Antonio Dans, spokesperson for the coalition composed of more than 160 medical societies.
“We know that health is not just the issue. That it is also an issue that the economy must be revived and that it is an issue that people have to work. Many will get sick with this strategy. This is why we need to talk with each other so we can agree on what is the best strategy for us to beat this pandemic,” he added.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends physical distancing of at least 1 meter.
Despite the apparent absence of scientific evidence showing how its policy revision could impact the COVID-19 situation in the country, the DOTr went ahead with its plan to reduce from 1 meter to 0.75 meter the required distance between commuters on public vehicles on Monday as the Department of Health (DOH) reported 4,699 additional infections that brought the overall number of confirmed COVID-19 cases to 265,888.
The DOH said 259 more patients had died, pushing the death toll from COVID-19 to 4,630. It was the biggest single-day increase in deaths since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
Recoveries increased by 249, raising the total number of COVID-19 survivors to 207,504 and, considered with the deaths, leaving the country with 53,754 active cases.
The DOTr announced the relaxation on Friday. The new physical distancing rule will be gradually reduced to 0.5 meter after two weeks and to 0.3 meter after another two weeks.
Model submitted to task force
Over the weekend, Dans said his group worked on models to see what the policy’s effect would be following the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases’ request for data and recommendations from the medical community “to help in their decision.”
Dans, however, did not disclose how high the number of new infections would be if the new DOTr rules were not stopped.ADVERTISEMENT
“What we can say is that it will definitely increase. We submitted to the [task force] a model with various assumptions. They would be the ones who would input the final data. So let us just wait what their decision would be,” he said.
Last month, the medical community asked for quarantine measures in Metro Manila and four nearby provinces to be tightened as it expressed alarm that the country was “waging a losing battle against COVID-19.” It urged the government to use the two-week lockdown to recalibrate its strategies to curb the virus’ spread.
According to Dr. Anna Ong-Lim, the slightly fewer number of daily cases this month may be attributed to the reimposition of the lockdown. Hence, if the country would let down its guard, infections would rise.
“The critical message is that the virus is still here. It is just waiting [for an opportunity] to spread,” Lim said.
Dr. Maricar Limpin, vice president of the Philippine College of Physicians, earlier said the DOH should take the lead and agencies should listen to it given that it has the knowhow to stem the outbreak.
Talks going on
“We need [the] DOH’s leadership. It is time for all of us to listen to [the] DOH. We can’t be doing things on our own and try to best each other. What we need is unity and for [the] DOH to [lead],” Limpin said.
The DOH, however, refused to make a categorical response on whether it was prudent to reduce physical distancing at this time. Instead, it advised the public to take vehicles where distancing of at least a meter can be observed.
“[The] DOTr is responsible for issuing and enforcing transport guidelines to ensure that the public’s health and safety are not compromised. Given [the] DOTr’s decision to optimize physical distancing in transportation and in the interest of public health, we call on the public to be extra vigilant in situations where distancing cannot be practiced, and if possible, choose to participate in activities or use transport options that will allow you at least 1-meter distancing,” said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.
Vergeire dodged the question when pressed if the DOH was in favor of the DOTr’s move, saying talks were going on and that “we will see in the coming days what will be the outcome of that.”
On Monday, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the government was willing to sit down with medical experts to discuss the matter.
Roque said the coronavirus task force approved the reduction of physical distancing on public vehicles in a meeting last week.
“It was approved by the [task force] because we cannot reopen the economy if we do not add to our transportation capacity,” he said.
In a television interview on Monday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said the reduction in physical distancing had been requested by the government’s economic team and by the local governments to expand public transport capacity so that more people could go to work.
But the task force may reconsider its decision following opposition from the medical community, Año said, adding that he personally preferred the 1-meter physical distancing rule.
He said the task force would discuss the matter during its meeting on Tuesday.
Defending the DOTr’s decision at a press briefing on Monday, Transportation Undersecretary Artemio Tuazon said the agency just listened to “the call of Filipinos” to expand public transport capacity.
Tuazon said neither the railway sector nor the road sector had asked for the reduction in physical distancing.
He said the DOTr decision was based on a study by the International Union of Railways that showed coronavirus transmission did not originate from public transport, particularly trains.
Jose Arturo Garcia, general manager of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, declined to comment on Monday, saying he did not want to preempt the coronavirus task force’s discussion of the matter.
But Navotas Mayor Tobias Tiangco said he did not see the logic behind the DOTr decision, as the health sector has been recommending the 1-meter physical distancing rule these past six months to curb the spread of the virus.
“We have already achieved the flattening of the curve. This means that our previous measures, including physical distancing in public transportation, have been effective. We must always prioritize the health and safety of Filipinos,” Tiangco said.
—With reports from Julie M. Aurelio, Jeannette I. Andrade and Meg Adonis