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Frontliners Seeking 'Timeout' Await Duterte Move on COVID-19 Strategy

Your move, Mr. President.
by Joel Guinto
Aug 2, 2020
Photo/s: Jerome Ascano

President Rodrigo Duterte was scheduled to meet with the Cabinet late Sunday to discuss a weekend distress call from the country's medical frontliners: the country is "losing" its battle against COVID-19 and a return to a lockdown for at least two weeks is needed to reboot the country's pandemic-fighting strategy.

Doctors, nurses, microbiologists -- basically all medical professionals who work long hours in hazmat suits -- are calling for an enhanced community quarantine or ECQ in Mega Manila for two weeks. The 11-week ECQ that ended on May 31 shut public transport, limited business to supermarkets and pharmacies, imposed curfews and required quarantine passes to the one person per household who can go out for errands. 

On Saturday, Exeuctive Secretary Salvador Medialdea met with Cabinet executives who are at the forefront of the fight against the disease that has infected 103,185 people as of Sunday. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said he would upate the public on the results of the meeting with the President as soon as details are available.

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The frontliners raised several points: hospitals are overwhelmed by rising cases, testing and contact tracing operations are failing, safeguards must be strengthened in public transport and in the workplace, the public must comply with COVID-19 protocols such as hand-washing and wearing of face masks, social amelioration or aid must be ensured for those who will stop working during the ECQ period.

"We re waging a losing battle against COVID-19 and we need to draw up a consplidated, definite plan of action," according to a statement from the Philippine College of Physicians.

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Rapid tests have become inappropriate for screening, the frontliners said. A rapid test detects the presence of antibodies in the blood, which is inconclusive. Currently, only the RT-PCR type of test can detect the virus from samples taken from the nose and throat using cotton swabs. An RT-PCR test is more expensive than a rapid test.

In the provinces, suspect cases with mild symptoms are allowed to go home if the pass the rapid test. In some areas, positive cases are allowed to isolate at home despite inadequate facilities, the frontliners said.

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The gradual easing of quarantines caused a "progressive decline" in public compliance with face mask wearing, hand-washing and physical distancing. This is what happened in New York, the global epicenter of the disease, the frontliners said.

Responding to the frontliners, the Department of Health said: "We have hear your call and we are with you in battling the COVID-19 before it lays further waste to the people and to our nation." Without mentioning an ECQ directly, the DOH said: "The time out you have asked for will buy us time to refine and revisit our strategies to meet the evolving nature of this global pandemic."

The DOH said a rapid response team would de deployed to prevent the system from being overwhelmed. From Monday, a new system called CODE will "promote preventive behaviors" including house-to-house symptom checks and RT-PCR tests for those with symtoms. With the Department of Labor and Employment, the DOH said there would be active contact tracing in sectors with clusters of infections: construction, technoparks and passenger services.

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The DOH said it would be proactive in the implementation of localized lockdowns, develop and updated strategy in seven days and "advocate for the call for time out" during a meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19.

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The frontliners' call came as Duterte extended the GCQ in Metro Manila and other urban centers by another 15 days, until Aug. 15. As confirmed infections rise due to higher testing rates,  more businesses are allowed to reopen as the government tries to save both lives and the economy.

The trade department said the following businesses can restart at 30 percent capacity in GCQ areas: gymsfitness centersinternet shopstutorial and review centers, and grooming services.

In MGCQ areas, the following can resume, also at 30 percent capacity: tattoo and body piercing, live events, entertainment industries, libraries, archives, museums and cultural centers, tourist destinations, and schools for language, driving, dance, acting and voice.

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