The town of Banaue in Ifugao on Saturday prohibited all non-essential travel to neighboring Bontoc in Mountain Province after 12 cases of the more contagious United Kingdom strain of the coronavirus were found there.
This developed as the Department of Health expedited contact tracing operations in the Cordillera Administrative Region to contain cases of the B.1.1.7 or UK variant detected in 13 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the region -- 12 of them in Bontoc and one in La Trinidad, Benguet.
Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, the country’s contact tracing czar, said the DOH is now organizing a team of more than 60 trained contact tracers to be fielded to the region to trace other possible cases.
According to DOH Assistant Secretary Dr. Maria Francia Laxamana and DOH Epidemiology Bureau Medical Specialist IV Dr. Alethea de Guzman, the team members will come from Regions 1, 2 and 3 and the Regional Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases and will be under Magalong’s supervision.
Meanwhile, Banaue Mayor John Raymund Wesley Dulawan announced on his Facebook page that all its residents returning from Bontoc “regardless of length of stay shall be automatically quarantined at our facility, regardless of RT-PCR swab result status.”
The mayor said Banaue’s border control at the Mt. Polis boundary will also be intensified. The town famous for its Rice Terraces is 61 kilometers away from Bontoc, which takes almost three hours to reach by car.
In other developments:
• The World Health Organization has said it has no plans to change its guidance recommending fabric facemasks as new coronavirus variants spread because the mutated strains are transmitted in the same way.
Germany and Austria have made medical masks mandatory on public transport and in shops—allowing only surgical or FFP2 masks, rather than fabric—amid concerns over the threat posed by the rapidly-spreading new virus mutations.
• The coronavirus strain that has swept Britain and beyond in recent months could be more deadly as well as more transmissible, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
The sobering news came as the UK sees record deaths from COVID-19, following a surge in cases and hospitalizations since the variant was first identified in southeast England in September.
The strain has also spread to more than 60 nations—including China, where the pandemic began more than a year ago— according to the WHO (See related story on A3—Editors).
At least two barangays in the Mountain Province capital of Bontoc have been placed on lockdown after a cluster of cases of the new COVID-19 variant had been detected in the second-class municipality, according to a health official.
Dr. Ruby Constantino, Regional Director of the Department of Health in the Cordillera Administrative Region, said local officials in Bontoc clamped a lockdown in affected barangays where cases of the more transmissible coronavirus variant were detected.
In an interview on Teleradyo, Bontoc Mayor Franklin Odsey said the town’s first case of the UK COVID-19 variant arrived on that date to visit her family. She initially tested negative for the virus.
According to the mayor, the arrival had a small celebration with family members and had a ritual in line with their beliefs. After that, they developed symptoms.
“But we are still gathering correct information to relay this to the public properly,” the mayor said.
Most of the 11 infected with the new variant in the town, Odsey pointed out, were the Filipina’s relatives, adding “in-laws and relatives were the first people who had close contacts with the index patient.”
The Filipina was confined in the hospital and was discharged after a 14-day mandatory quarantine, he said.
The index case is currently under home quarantine and is awaiting another set of swab results.
At the same time, an infectious disease expert talked of the likelihood the Philippines could have its own COVID-19 variant if cases continued to rise.
“We also have the potential to have a Philippine variant if we do not cooperate to bring down the number of cases in the country,” University of the Philippines Institute of Clinical Epidemiology Director Dr. Marissa Alejandria said in a virtual press briefing.
Alejandria, a member of the Department of Health’s Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 variants, emphasized it was important to level off the number of new COVID-19 cases as this would make it less likely for the coronavirus to mutate.
Dr. Edsel Salvana, a member of the DOH Technical Advisory Group, said patients in this cluster were all “related” to each other.
A total 12 cases of the UK COVID-19 strain had been confirmed in the town on Friday night, with 11 in a single barangay.
Constantino said the stricter quarantine might be expanded if the local health care capacity was overwhelmed by the surge in cases.
“Currently, the local LGU of Bontoc implemented the lockdown on the involved barangays, but as per our meeting last night… If ever our health care utilization rate will continue to increase, they might recommend to the IATF the changing of our quarantine status from MGCQ (modified general community quarantine) to GCQ,” she told a virtual briefing.
MGCQ is the lowest quarantine level, with those 10 to 65 years old allowed to leave their homes.
She said it was a “very big challenge” to bring down the utilization rate of health care facilities.
“That is a very big challenge that we have to lower the HCUR (health care utilization rate), yesterday (Friday) almost in the danger zone already because the facilities are fully occupied, we really have to move our asymptomatic patients,” she said.
Dr. Alethea de Guzman, medical specialist at the DOH Epidemiology Bureau, said Bontoc had seen a 203 percent rise in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks.
All cases in Bontoc are under isolation. Seven are men and five are women, with 3 minors and 3 seniors. The earliest case fell ill on Dec. 31, she said.
The cases are among the total 16 new patients of the new COVID-19 variant in the country, raising the total to 17.
The additional cases were confirmed on Friday, just as authorities reported the recovery of the first case— a man from Quezon City who was diagnosed with the new variant upon return from Dubai on January 7.
3 recovered cases
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said of the new cases, three have already recovered while 13 are still ill. Among the active cases, 3 are asymptomatic, while 10 have mild symptoms.
With the detection of more cases of the new strain, genome sequencing -- the step necessary to determine the strain of the virus -- will continue, with the sampling method to be discussed in the coming days, said Dr. Eva Maria Cutiongco of the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health.
She said experts would endeavor to get a “better representation of samples from different regions,” with priority samples identified.
The current capacity for genome sequencing is 750 samples per week, she said.
An infectious disease expert from the Philippines eased concerns that the UK variant of the coronavirus was deadlier, emphasizing that data on the matter was still preliminary.
Dr. Edsel Salvana, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the UP National Institutes of Health, said there was still no evidence that the B.1.1.7 variant was more deadly.
“The data from the UK about potentially increased deadliness of the virus, is very preliminary,” Salvana, a member of the technical advisory group that advises the Department of Health (DOH) and Inter-Agency Task Force, said.
Airlines and airport personnel on Saturday started implementing the revised testing and quarantine protocols for air travelers coming from countries where travel restrictions are in place due to new COVID-19 variants.
Philippine Airlines spokesperson Cielo Villaluna said Filipino citizens and eligible non-Filipino travelers from countries covered by the restrictions shall be given reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing upon arrival and shall be given the option to avail of a second swab test on their fifth day of quarantine.
The passengers are required to register on Case Investigation Forms depending on their traveler type and port of entry.
For overseas Filipino workers arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, swab testing will be carried out by the government One Stop Shop, free of charge.
For non-OFWs and eligible non-Filipinos arriving in Manila, swab testing will be carried out by the PAL One Stop Shop for a fee of P4,000.
Villaluna said passengers will proceed to their respective quarantine facilities or hotels.
She added when passengers swabbed under the PAL OSS receive a negative test, they shall receive an email providing them the option to either avail of a second swab test by PAL testing partner Detoxicare Molecular and Diagnostics Laboratory on the fifth day of quarantine or to continue their quarantine stay up to the 14th day.
Those who choose to avail themselves of the second swab test by Detoxicare will register on the email. They may pre-pay online or onsite. The pre-payment link is included in the e-mail.
OFW passengers swabbed under the government OSS will be guided accordingly by the Philippine Coast Guard. With AFP