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COVID-19 cases in Philippines may rise to 85,000 by end of July —UP experts

Experts from the University of the Philippines have projected that the number of COVID-19 cases in the country may reach more than 85,000 by the end of July.

The projection, which includes a projected 2,200 deaths by end-July, was based on an assumption that the virus' current reproduction number will remain and government interventions will not change significantly. 

This is higher than the researchers' previous projection of 60,000 to 70,000 cases by July 31 "due to an increase in transmission rates."

In a report presented to President Rodrigo Duterte, the UP professors and researchers said the virus' reproduction number in the Philippines, or the number of people an infected person could pass the virus to, is around 1.75 and increasing.

In their last forecast late June, the reproduction number was 1.28.

To flatten the curve, the reproduction number should be less than one. A value higher than one indicates the pandemic is spreading, the report states.

As of July 15, the national COVID-19 case total was 58,850. There were more than 36,000 active cases, more than 20,000 recoveries, and 1,614 deaths.

In the National Capital Region, the researchers said the number of cases, the positivity rate, and the utilization of hospital resources have all increased, indicating a "genuine surge" that hospitals could be overwhelmed by. The virus' reproduction number in the NCR is 1.75.

If Metro Manila remains under general community quarantine (GCQ)—which it will, until at least July 31—the number of cases in the National Capital Region could reach 40,000 by the end of July and over 80,000 with 2,800 deaths by the end of August, researchers said.

In a modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ), the reproduction number could go down to about 1.1 by the end of the month (with 35,000 projected cases) and close to one by the end of August (with 56,000 projected cases and 1,900 deaths), the researchers said.

They said the positivity rate in Metro Manila has increased to about 12% from 6% in May, both above the 5% recommended by the World Health Organization.

"This surge, if left unabated, poses a real danger of the virus leading not just to exponential growth in the number of cases and deaths but also to overwhelm the health care system in the NCR," they said.

They recommended either sustaining the GCQ with provisions for "more aggressive and effective localized lockdowns" and scaled-up testing, tracing, isolation and treatment; or tightening restrictions through a 14-day MECQ "with emphasis on stricter compliance with minimal public health standards."

In Cebu, researchers said the reproduction number had decreased while the province was under ECQ, the strictest quarantine level.

The reproduction rate in the province is at 1.14, down from 2 in the previous UP report, owing to stricter quarantine, ramped up testing, tracing, isolation and treatment strategies, the report states.

Cebu province is "on the way to flattening the epidemic curve," researchers said, recommending the continuation of strict quarantine to sustain gains.

Cebu City will be under MECQ until July 31.

"If an ECQ or MECQ status is sustained in Cebu City for another 14 days, then the whole province will be on a trajectory towards flattening its epidemic curve," the researchers said. "We believe that this option will work in the NCR as well."

Apart from the NCR and Cebu, they said Basilan, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, Leyte and Rizal remain high-risk areas.

The researchers concluded that there is a "very significant community transmission" in the country, with national and local trends pointing to a "significant surge" in transmissions.

They cautioned the government against "prematurely downgrading" the quarantine status in Cebu City and in the NCR.

"Whatever quarantine decisions the government chooses to implement, we continue to reiterate our past recommendations, front and center of the strategy against COVID-19 has always hinged on increased testing, tracing, and the establishment of more quarantine and other isolation facilities especially in hotspots within the region," they said.

They urged the government to invest more in laboratory capacity and ensure a faster turnaround time of test results, saying an effective scaling up of the testing, tracing, treatment and isolation strategy is "key to controlling the spread of the virus."

"So much work still needs to be done," they said.

The report was authored by Guido David, Ranjit Singh Rye, Ma. Patricia Agbulos, and Rev. Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, with contributions from Erwin Alampay, Eero Rosini Brillantes, Bernhard Egwolf, Rodrigo Angelo Ong, Michael Tee, and Benjamin Vallejo, Jr. — BM, GMA News