Some top hospitals in the National Capital Region (NCR) have started to feel the effects of a surge in the number of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases over the past few weeks.
This as the country logged Saturday 3,439 new cases of COVID, which is the highest for the year, bringing the total infections to 591,138, the Department of Health reported.
The figures did not include nine laboratories that were not able to submit their data to the COVID-19 Document Repository System on March 5.
According to the Philippine General Hospital in Manila, they have reported more than 100 new cases. There were 104 cases at the PGH as of Thursday.
Fifteen healthcare workers at the PGH Hospital Infection Control Unit tested positive for COVID-19 from March 1 to March 4, 10 of them from coworkers or from “eating together.” The PGH’s outpatient department had to be temporarily closed due to the increase in cases
The March 1 to March 4 figure compares with 15 in the whole month of December, 18 in January and 17 in February.
“One thing we noticed is that at least 15 healthcare workers had COVID over a short period of time, within a week,” PGH spokesperson Dr. Jonas Del Rosario said, noting it was nearly equal to the monthly total from December 2020 to February 2021.
“So that also raised a red flag that it might be that the UK and the S.A., South African variant is (sic) already in PGH,” he added.
The Standard also learned from reliable sources that the National Kidney and Transplant Institute will stop admitting patients as long as COVID cases are surging, as some of their doctors and staff have been infected. Isolation rooms are also at full capacity across Metro Manila, they added.
Interns at PGH were also sent home immediately as officials of the premier government hospital sought to shift to “full remote mode” until further notice.
The outbreak at the hospital was classified as a “Level 5” event and was in line with previous projections of a March outbreak, PGH sources told the Standard.
Officials advised the staff to be extremely cautious going forward and recommended them to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, one of the country’s top epidemiologists, who serves in a government body managing the pandemic, said new variants of the COVID-19 virus could be causing the surge in infections as the Department of Health recorded 3,045 additional cases on Friday.
The figure is the second-highest daily uptick in infections in five months after the government eased restrictions on travel, business establishments, and mass gatherings.
At an online press briefing, Dr. John Wong, a member of the technical working group on data analytics of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, said that “one evidence that the variants could be causing this surge is we detected the variants just before cases start to rise.”
“So there’s some indirect evidence that the variants are causing this surge,” he said. “We should encourage the public to take precautions.”
The reports did not say what variants of the coronavirus had afflicted its 15 health-care workers.
“Because of the observed surge in cases of HCW and patient admissions, we will be sending all positive swabs for genomic sequencing to the Philippine Genome Center,” the reports said.
Wong was referring to the UK and the highly transmissible South African variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the severe respiratory disease.
He said developments involving the new COVID-19 variants should be a cause for public concern.
“The number of cases you see now should not be seen as sort of the maximum number of people or patients who have the variant. There could be more than that,” Wong said.
Spike in cases
The Department of Health is attributing the recent spike in COVID-19cases in the country to people’s failure to comply with minimum health standards that seek to prevent infection.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said this in a public press briefing Saturday, adding that the presence of more transmissible coronavirus variants in the country was just “aggravating factors” in the rising number of cases.
“We need to change public perception about this. Yes, we have detected variants, but we need to also see that we did not comply with health protocols. So if we see continuous violations of health guidance, definitely, the cases will rise. And the variants are just aggravating factors,” she said.
The Philippines has been enforcing a nearly yearlong quarantine, with face masks, face shields and physical distancing required in public places. Mass gatherings are still prohibited, but restrictions have been loosened to revive the economy.
On Friday, health authorities detected 52 cases of the South African variant, bringing the caseload to 58 after recording the first 6 cases earlier in the week.
There are also a total of 118 cases of the United Kingdom variant, while the country has also tallied 42 COVID-19 positive patients with mutations of “potential clinical significance.”
The COVID-19 positivity rate in Metro Manila is rising steadily as daily coronavirus cases also continue to increase, analysts said on Friday, as they sounded the alarm on a possible “overwhelming” surge of infections in the National Capital Region.
In a report, the OCTA Research Team said that the number of new COVID-19 cases in the NCR continued to increase, as it tallied over 900 new infections per day from February 26 to March 4.
According to OCTA, the ratio of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the region increased to an average of 7 percent over the past 7 days and has risen by 1-percentage point every week.
In Pasay City alone, the group noted 150 new COVID-19 cases were logged from February 26 to March 4, the “highest average daily new cases” there. Besides Pasay, other cities in Metro Manila recorded “marginal” increase in coronavirus infections, the OCTA said.
“Based on our analysis of the data and the past trends in the NCR, we believe that a surge in its early stages has already started in some LGUs in the region,” OCTA said.
Unlike past surges experienced, the current surge has spread very quickly in a short period.
The increase in cases and the reproduction number indicates that the virus is already spreading exponentially in several LGUs in the region, they said.
The cities of Cebu, Lapu Lapu, Mandaue, Davao, Baguio and Bacoor were also exhorted to do the same due to their number of daily COVID-19 cases.
“Furthermore, in the identified NCR LGUs, the implementation of more effective localized lockdowns with stricter border controls are urgently needed to suppress further viral transmissions. Effective and more stringent border controls must be observed to mitigate COVID-19 transmissions from the NCR and between provinces and prevent the spread of the virus,” OCTA said.
The researchers believe the surge in COVID-19 cases in the affected cities was caused by community transmission, likely aggravated by relaxation of crowd and border controls, contact tracing and coronavirus testing.
“Furthermore, some citizens’ deteriorating compliance with the minimum health standard due to pandemic fatigue and/or the failure of LGUs to monitor and enforce GCQ (general community quarantine) regulations have also contributed to spikes, especially in metropolitan areas,” the analysts said, stressing the importance of discipline in observing minimum health standards set by government.
The OCTA called on the national government to enhance the capacity of the Philippine healthcare system, such as boosting manpower, increasing hospital equipment, and building more isolation facilities as the country sets to further reopen its economy and relax more restrictions placed to contain COVID-19 transmission.
A vaccine expert on Saturday stressed the need for the fast rollout of vaccines against COVID-19 amid another surge in new cases and the threat of more contagious coronavirus variants.
“The most important thing that experts say is to be expedient, to speed up vaccinating many people because this will provide us protection in the long run,” Dr. Maria Consorcia Quizon, a member of the interim National Immunization Technical Advisory Group for COVID-19 vaccines, said in an interview on ABS-CBN’s TeleRadyo.
The Philippines on Monday began its vaccination program, inoculating mostly health workers using jabs donated by China’s Sinovac Biotech.
A shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines, meanwhile, arrived in the Philippines on Thursday through the vaccine-sharing platform COVAX Facility.
Quizon said vaccine brands being rolled out around the world help protect patients and their communities from COVID-19, regardless of its efficacy rate.
The OCTA Research Team earlier said that the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine decreases from 70 percent to 10 percent in cases of the South African COVID-19 variant.
There is no vaccine that currently addresses this variant and the other mutations. Quizon said the vaccines that have been developed by various firms around the world were intended to address the first strain.
Former Special Adviser to the National Task Force on COVID-19 Dr. Tony Leachon said Saturday the “disturbing increase” in coronavirus disease cases should not be ignored, as reports of several new cases began to appear in hospitals in Metro Manila.
“Reports coming from medical colleagues and hospital leaders about disturbing increases in COVID cases with a healthcare system starting to be overwhelmed should not be ignored,” said Leachon in a message to the media.
“The threat of new variants is real and can’t be overemphasized. We need to be responsible citizens in following our health protocols. This is the time to be vigilant more than ever,” he said.
“Aside from LGU (local government unit) leadership in preventing spreads through building up healthcare capacities, we need to protect our healthcare workers. They should be given top priority in the vaccination program with the available vaccines we have right now,” Leachon said.
“We should fast track the FDA EUA (Food and Drug Administration Emergency Use Authorization) approvals of other reliable vaccines given the worrisome surges now to expand our vaccination program ASAP with multiple choices and reduce vaccine hesitancy,” Leachon added.
An epidemiologist has urged the public to get tested for COVID-19 earlier to prevent further transmission.
Dr. John Wong, resident epidemiologist of the Department of Health, said delayed testing was one of the factors in the increasing COVID-19 positivity rate.
“One indicator we were seeing kasi is there’s a delay in health seeking. On the average, it takes three days for [an] asymptomatic person to go get tested,” Wong said in a virtual briefing.
“In those three days, they could be infecting their household members or people at work… People [should] seek testing much earlier,” Wong said.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the incubation period of the virus that causes COVID-19 ranges from five to 14 days.
Wong said COVID-19 transmission had to be contained to avoid further mutations.
“We need to control transmission because transmission also drives mutation. If we develop not just imported variants but our own variant, it makes the vaccination program less effective,” Wong said.
Wong likewise urged the public to continue observing health protocols amid a surge in infections.
‘Don’t be confident’
The government on Saturday reiterated its appeal to the public to practice health and safety protocols in response to COVID-19 to avoid being penalized.
The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority reminded the people that non compliant to the basic protocols such as non wearing of face mask and face shield, and not practicing social distancing is punishable.
“Don’t be confident. Local governments are enforcing ordinances and fines imposed for not wearing face masks and shields, and for not practicing social distancing when going out,” MMDA chairman Benjamin Abalos Jr.
In Malabon City alone, the MMDA stated, the penalty is P5,000 or six months in jail for first offenders. In San Juan City, violators will be fined P3,000 in first offense while in cities of Manila, Makati, Paranaque, Valenzuela, Marikina, Las Pinas and Pasay, first offenders will be slapped with P1,000.
Abalos said people who practice the basic health protocol would protect, not only themselves, but also their families and loved ones against the deadly coronavirus disease.
The MMDA also stated that compliance to safety guidelines could save the people’s money by not being penalized amid the massive unemployment caused by the pandemic.
In Taguig City, Mayor Lino Edgardo Cayetano said his administration imposes penalties on any person who fails to follow the minimum health and safety protocols.
A fine not exceeding P5,000 according to the nature of offense or a community service shall be rendered, he added.