(UPDATE) Lockdown restrictions for some 24 million people in Metro Manila and surrounding provinces were dialed down one notch, as hospitals continued to struggle with a surge in COVID cases, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Sunday.
The capital region, Laguna, Rizal, Cavite and Bulacan were placed under MECQ, the second highest in a four-step classification system after being under ECQ for two weeks. The MECQ will last until April 30. Also placed under MECQ are Santiago City, Quirino and Abra.
Roque said the difference between ECQ and MECQ will be threshed out Monday.
The following areas will be placed under GCQ until April 30, the third highest under the government's four-step quarantine system: Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Batangas, Tacloban City, Iligan City, Davao City, Lanao del Sur and Quezon province. The rest of the country will be under MGCQ.
Contact-tracing will be strengthened using the Staysafe.ph platform. In Metro Manila, there will be 164 new critical ICU beds and 2,227 regular beds for moderate and severe cases and 765 isolation beds.
Last week, the Department of Health recorded a record 15,000 new infections. On Friday, there were 2,000 new cases and 400 deaths. The Philippines now has a cumulative total of roughly 850,000 infections.
Last Friday, health authorities paused the use of AstraZeneca's COVID vaccine for ages 60 and below, citing the risk of blood clots. However, the risk of dying due to the vaccine is at one in every 1.4 million. There's a higher chance of getting hit by lightning.
Some Filipinos have also begun looking for cures. The FDA authorized the antiparasitic Ivermectin for compassionate use in hospitals even as regulators here and abroad said its therapeutic effects against COVID has yet to be proven.
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'It's a dire situation'
A week after the lockdown was imposed, 70-80% of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients were full, while ICU beds were "almost 100%" occupied in most of the capital, Health Undersecretary Maria Vergeire said.
"It's a dire situation -- it is the worst nightmare of a hospital manager happening in reality," said Jaime Almora, president of the Philippine Hospital Association.
Leland Ustare, an anesthesiologist at St Luke's Medical Center, said some patients were spending days in the emergency room waiting for an intensive care bed.
"This time is even worse than last year," Ustare said, referring to the first few months of the pandemic.
"The numbers are really worse."
Nearing the 'red line'
The government is distributing modular tents to struggling hospitals and re-deploying health workers from regions where virus transmission rates are low.
Isolation facilities were being expanded to include schools and hotel rooms for mild cases in an effort to ease the burden and stop the virus from spreading in crowded households.
The World Health Organization warned hospitals were nearing a "red line" where demand exceeded healthcare capacity.
"It's very, very important to avoid crossing this red line," said Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific.
'Bleak months ahead'
Almora said the problem in hospitals was a lack of health workers, not beds.
"The hospitals have the capacity, they have the beds, but they cannot expand their capability because of the manpower problem," he said.
Some nurses have resigned out of fear of catching the virus or gone abroad to work in hospitals where the risks were the same but the pay higher, he said.
Government insurance restrictions on copayments was also deterring smaller facilities from accepting COVID-19 patients, Almora added.
President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government has been under fire over its handling of the pandemic and vaccine rollout, warned last week of "bleak months" ahead.