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Ex-DOH chiefs, medical experts back reduced social distancing in public transpo


Evidence from several studies support the gradual reduction of social distancing inside public transportation vehicles, former officials of the Department of Health and several other medical experts said on Tuesday.

The experts, including former Health Secretaries Manuel Dayrit and Esperanza Cabral, said that the World Health Organization’s recommendation of keeping at least 1 meter of distance from others “allows for adjustments based on context.”

“Given our other recommended health interventions, we propose the gradual reduction of the physical distancing norm during transit to 0.5 meters or lower… We believe the evidence shows physical distancing can be maintained below 1 meter, so long as other health measures are also implemented,” they said in a statement.

The other signatories were National Task Force Against COVID-19 advisor Ted Herbosa, University of the Philippines Manila official Vicente Belizario Jr., Philippine College of Surgeons Cancer Commission Director Manuel Roxas, Eye Bank Foundation of the Philippines founder and CEO Ma. Dominga Padilla, and infectious diseases specialist Rontgene Solante.

They urged the government to increase public transportation supply including rail, bus, jeepney, and motorcycle taxis while easing social distancing rules under strict health protocols and using other options such as cycling, walking, and private shuttles.

They also said consultation with the private medical community including the Health Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 being a part of the technical working group must be done before the Inter-Agency Task Force releases policy.

"We recommend the full institutionalization of private sector expert consultation to further improve our overall management of the economy and public health," they said.

The medical experts stressed that the economy cannot bounce back without increasing the capacity of public transport, which has long been on limited operation to avoid possible transmission of COVID-19.

They also pushed for the strict implementation of the “seven commandments” for all public utility vehicles:

  • Wearing of proper face masks
  • Wearing of face shields
  • No talking and no eating
  • Adequate ventilation
  • Frequent and proper disinfection
  • No symptomatic passengers
  • Appropriate physical distancing

“By imposing these strict measures, we believe we can gradually relax social distancing rules, in order to double or even triple our current public transport capacity, without compromising public health,” they said.

Evidence

The experts cited several studies that support the reduction of social distancing in public transport.

“A recent study from Duke University, for example, shows that surgical masks reduce droplet transmission by up to 99 percent, and that the simple act of not talking can reduce droplet counts by up to four times,” they said.

“A meta-analysis published on June 22, 2020 in The Lancet, a leading international medical journal, shows that face masks and face shields can independently reduce the chance of viral transmission by up to 5-fold and 3-fold, respectively,” they added.

The group also said that COVID-19 infections remain “manageable” in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam, even though passengers sit side-by-side in trains.

“We believe that there is a way forward that carefully balances a careful reopening of public transport capacity, with public health, while allowing purposeful flexibility to re-adjust measures based on actual and evolving data from the ground,” they said.

The government earlier approved a proposal to gradually reduce physical distancing in public transport from 1 meter to 0.3 meters by October.

After the adjustment took effect on Monday, Cabinet officials publicly debated the decision to loosen restrictions on social distancing.

Malacañang earlier vowed to look into the growing concerns on the directive.

The Philippines has logged 269,407 COVID-19 infections as of Tuesday afternoon. -MDM, GMA News