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Premature lifting of ECQ could lead to spike in COVID-19 cases, deaths - UP experts

Premature lifting of the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) could cause cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to spike and lead to more deaths, experts from the University of the Philippines warned.

In a study released on Wednesday, professors Guido David and Ranjit Singh Rye with research associate Ma. Patricia Agbulos projected that COVID-19 cases could rise to 80,000 with 3,800 deaths by May 31 if the ECQ is lifted after April 30.

If the ECQ is extended, however, the number of cases by the end of May are forecast to reach about 10,000 with 650 deaths.

“The forecast without ECQ is highly dependent on numerous factors that cannot be taken into account in a mathematical model… What is shown is just one hypothetical scenario that assumes the transmission rates will go up due to relaxing of the ECQ,” the experts stressed.

The Philippines has recorded 6,981 COVID-19 cases with 722 recoveries and 462 deaths as of Thursday afternoon.

President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to announce his decision on the possible extension or modification of the ECQ on Friday morning.

Criteria for lifting quarantine

The UP team said government officials must only relax quarantine measures if the following have been achieved:

  • access to mass testing facilities with enough capacity and reasonable turnaround time to test all probable and suspected cases;
  • an effective and efficient contact tracing system;
  • adequate number of hospital beds, ventilators, health workers, personal protective equipment, and quarantine facilities to accommodate COVID-19 patients; and
  • a declining trend of new cases for a period of two weeks even with mass testing.

Their study found that the following provinces may already shift to a modified quarantine: Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra, Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Camarines Sur, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, Marinduque, Palawan, Romblon, and other provinces that have remained COVID-19-free.

Asymptomatic cases

The study also noted that 20 percent of known COVID-19 cases are senior citizens, even though they only comprise four percent of the population.

On the other hand, only eight percent of COVID-19 patients are aged between 0 and 24, but they make up 50 percent of the population.

The experts cited data from other countries suggesting that asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic COVID-19 patients are “more prevalent for those in the younger age group who are healthier and do not have health issues.”

“This then suggests that the number of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines is much higher, due not only to under-reporting, but also to asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic cases,” they said, roughly estimating that the “true” number of COVID-19 cases is 9,000 if asymptomatic cases are factored in.

“Mass testing and tracking of cases will help give a more accurate value for the number of COVID-19 cases, and to identify these silent spreaders,” they added.

Data from the Department of Health as of Wednesday show that 64,581 people have so far been tested for COVID-19, 86.9 percent of whom tested negative while 13 percent were positive.

Economic impact

The UP experts urged the government to continue providing financial assistance to Filipinos to cushion the impact of a quarantine extension.

Among the measures that must be continued are the social amelioration program, provision of relief goods to the poor, financial aid for those temporarily displaced or out of work, small business wage subsidy, and price monitoring.

The UP team lauded the initiative of the Department of the Interior and Local Government to require local governments to publicize the list of cash aid recipients and urged the Labor and Finance Departments to do the same.

The experts also supported calls for a national ID system to ease the distribution of assistance and facilitate better data collection and analysis at the local level.

“The [government] should also consider preparing an economic stimulus package that would provide opportunities for reskilling displaced workers, bridge loans for businesses including wage subsidies for micro, small and medium scale enterprises,” the team said.

“This is a crucial intervention to ensure that people’s jobs and enterprises’ viability are not perceived as being unfairly sacrificed,” they added. -- BAP, GMA News