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Another round of ECQ due to the Delta variant of the coronavirus  puts everybody to task on the safety of their commutes

With the looming Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) once again set to curtail our freedom of mobility,  nothing scares people more than the combination of uncertainty, misinformation and lack of information.


While we are used to the ECQ limiting the movement of people, the onset of the more contagious Delta variant of the SARS N-COV virus has made the implementation of this “hard lockdown” starting on Friday even more crucial to the health of our people and the future of our fragile economy.


Starting this Friday, August 6th, only Authorized Persons Outside of their Residence (APOR) will again be allowed to venture out to do essential tasks like buying food and medicine, going for a medical treatment or to the airport, or working for jobs that are allowed to operate.


One crucial difference now versus previous ECQ lockdowns is that more people will be allowed to leave their houses because of the ongoing vaccination drives in different cities and localities. The Department of Interior and Local Government is targeting to finish 4 million doses in the next two weeks just in Metro Manila alone. So that is at least 4 million souls travelling and roaming out of their homes.


The Department of Transportation meanwhile, has recommended that the current capacity of public transportation be maintained throughout the 2-week shutdown. If this is approved, then about 80% of public transportation will still be available and this includes the MRT and LRT, buses, jeepneys and taxis. All while having a 50% ridership capacity.
Past experience has shown us that a complete lockdown, one that includes shutting down transportation, is quite effective in preventing the spread of the virus. Not to mention, its impact on cleaning the air we breathe in the Metro. But it also had a serious effect on our economy as it prevented workers from performing their jobs. It also meant  lost income for drivers and operators of various PUVs. Lack of transportation also made it harder for frontliners to reach hospitals and return back to their homes after long shifts.


So now, with the upcoming ECQ, the question is, “Have we learned our lessons?” Striking a balance between the need to prevent a surge and that of putting food on the table is always going to be tricky. That is why the DOTr intends to see public transportation operational for the duration of the ECQ while maintaining established health protocols such as wearing of masks and face shields, social distancing, temperature checks, and frequent sanitation.


“This is important right now because the vaccination roll-out is still in operation,” reasons Dr. Butch Ong a 20-year Sports Medicine, Pain and Rehabilitation Medicine practitioner who doubles as one of UP-OCTA Research Team’s spokespersons. “That is why the transportation sector is a key element in the fight against COVID-19 because it will allow our citizens to go to vaccination centers and getting vaccinated is a major component in the fight against Covid-19,” he adds.


Because of the Delta variant’s increased transmissibility and the need to vaccinate, keeping the transportation sector operating has now become a necessity compared to being a liability before. So let us evaluate the different means of available transportation that the more than 4 million people and APORs who will venture out will take in the next two weeks.

The Car


According to Dr. Ong, the private car is the safest and most comfortable option available now. The personal motor vehicle not only protects us from the virus by providing an enclosed cabin but it also shields us from the elements – rain and sun.


“The private family car is a very well controlled environment. You own it. You’re the only one, along with your family who stays in the same home, who uses it,” says Dr. Ong.


As long as we keep the people riding in our cars from within the same household, and our vehicles regularly sanitized, then there will be less chances of viral transmission.


TNVS and Taxis

App-hailing transport services rank second in Dr. Ong’s list. Like cars, TNVS providers only allow one passenger at a time. They come with barriers that separate the driver from his passenger. And you can even roll down the windows at the back to improve ventilation.


“It is very much a controlled environment also. And since it is a point-to-point service, one that does not stop and pick up passengers along the way, that lessens the risk of COVID-19 for the passenger,” explains Dr. Ong.


This rationale also applies to taxi cabs. At least to the well-maintained ones. “As long as the drivers respect the guidelines to disinfect, keep the windows open for ventilation, and remind the passengers to keep the mask on all the time as well as to wear face shields, then it would be a safe option,” shares Dr. Ong.


One key difference between TNVS and taxi cabs though is the necessity to handle cash for payment with traditional taxis. That is why the doctor recommends immediately sanitizing one’s hands after handling cash.

LRT and MRT


Though trains are enclosed areas, they rank third on Dr. Ong’s list. “Because of the implementation of minimum health standards,  the presence of safety officers in MRT and LRT stations, as well as the scheduled maintenance of the trains, this service ranks very high,” says Dr. Ong.
The only issue he has with the trains is when the windows are closed. That is why keeping a mask and face shield on is still important.

Jeepney


While measures to limit the capacity of all forms of transportation have been in place, enforcing them is another matter. Many jeepneys are found to be in full capacity during their trips. Again, the lack of social distancing, with people shoulder to shoulder inside, is a cause of concern. The airborne transfer of Covid-19 is real and it only takes a cough from one passenger to increase one’s chances of infection.

However, for Dr. Ong, the open ventilation design of jeepneys still makes it a well-suited mode of transportation with a very big caveat.  “Even if there are barriers, jeepneys should still maintain the occupancy limit mandated by the government and the IATF,” says Dr. Ong. “For one, alternating seats mean the windows are not blocked resulting in better ventilation. Second, not operating at full capacity lessens the number of people who may be exposed to COVID-19.”


Another caveat is the necessity for frequent disinfection. “If the operator is able to disinfect the barrier, as well as remind the passengers about the minimum health standards, and it must be reiterated that no mask and no face shield means no ride, then jeepneys should be a safe option.”


One particular risk Dr. Ong sees with jeepneys though is the ongoing  practice of manual payment. “The physical handling of money as payment is a risk for passengers. They may get infected with Covid-19 through handling of infected items. Sanitizing one’s hands with alcohol  should be done whenever money is handled.”
Another risk that is inherent in riding jeepneys is the fact that they stop from place to place to pick up passengers. “The ones seated near the entrance are at a higher risk,” says Dr. Ong. “If a Covid-19 passenger boards the jeepney, he will pass by every other passenger from the entrance until he finds a seat,” he explains. So be wary of where you sit in a jeepney, if you have the ability and opportunity to choose.

Bus
Since buses were allowed to operate again, we have seen more and more people take to this traditional means of transportation to move around the capital region. However, the wanton disregard of health protocols by some drivers and conductors have seen buses filled to capacity as well.


With social distancing ignored, basic checks disregarded, and the enclosed air-conditioned space shared by all passengers, it is quite possible for Covid-19 infected individuals to be seated beside you. Asymptomatic carriers are likewise undetected making the probability of catching the virus even higher.


“The good thing about buses is that there is a conductor who will remind people to observe health protocols, as well as  monitor and control the passengers,” shares Dr. Ong. Conductors can also play a key role in helping limit the number of passengers and maintain hygiene in the bus.


“If the bus is point-to-point like the P2P bus, this is okay. Riding in a P2P bus limits the exposure of passengers to Covid-19 versus regular buses that stop frequently along the way. Stops to load passengers increase the risk that a bus can pick up a rider with Covid-19” explains Dr. Ong.

One of the Safest


In terms of individual transportation, bicycles and motorcycles are actually one of  the safest modes of transportation to take if the goal is to reduce the risk of contracting Covid-19, according to Dr. Ong. “When you take your bike or motorcycle, you are normally riding alone. Moreover, the journey is mostly point-to-point as well. Even a tricycle with a single passenger  is a safe mode of transportation because of the open nature of its cabin,” adds Dr. Ong.


“Whatever mode of transportation you choose, it all depends on the sanitation of the vehicle you use,” says Dr. Ong. “After every use there is a need for some sort of disinfection of areas frequently touched like door handles, door locks, even the seats. All these are important to lessen the risk of passengers contracting Covid-19.”


Because of the pandemic, the good doctor also says we must all take extra precaution whenever heading out of our homes moving about. “We call it in medicine a Universal Precaution, meaning we assume that everyone is infected,” says Dr. Ong. He adds, “Because there are asymptomatic Covid-19 infected citizens, who may actually not even know they are infected,  it is necessary to always wear masks when we are outside our homes. We should wear face shields in crowded areas, and always have alcohol on hand to disinfect our hands.”


Moreover,  when riding in public transportation, Dr. Ong reminds us not to hold anything aside from the money we will use to pay. He adds, “As much as possible, no one should use mobile phones in public transportation as well. More so now that cases are going up. You might get Covid-19 especially if you don’t wear your mask properly.”


“All minimum health standards imposed on the riding public still work today,” acknowledges Dr. Ong. “It all depends on our discipline to adhere to these standards. We may need more marshals in bus stops to make people observe social distancing, or even us as citizens can have the discipline and mindset to observe these guidelines,” he explains.
The Delta variant can infect 5 to 8 more people, versus the original strain that could infect only one person according to Dr. Ong. Moreover, he says there are reports now of children getting infected by the Delta variant, along with research that says breakthrough infections, or those that can get past the protection of Covid-19 vaccines, are possible with this latest strain. That is why there is a need to be more vigilant and disciplined in our approach in the next couple of weeks.

So if you have nothing important to do, no emergencies to attend to, or have gotten your vaccination done already, staying home might be the safest way for you to spend the next two weeks. As we have said before, and it is much truer now, stay home and stay safe. Your life, along with those around you, is dependent on your cooperation.

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