Duterte meets task force to discuss fate of Luzon lockdown

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 23) — President Rodrigo Duterte will convene the task force leading the government's COVID-19 response on Thursday evening to guide his decision on the fate of the Luzon-wide quarantine, his Spokesperson Harry Roque said.

Duterte will meet members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases at 6 p.m., Roque said, as he has received the body's suggested decision-making tools on whether to extend or relax strict stay-at-home rules covering some 57 million people in the island bloc. 

Among the IATF's recommendations was to classify Luzon into low, moderate, and high-risk areas for infections, which could be the basis for a shift to a modified community quarantine. Duterte may seek clarifications or more updates during the meeting, Roque said.

Based on this, areas considered as high-risk would have no relaxation of the enhanced community quarantine. Instead, the focus would be in improving the capacity of local healthcare facilities, Roque said. Those deemed of moderate risk may see a modified quarantine and a partial resumption of public transport, while observing strict social distancing measures.

Meanwhile, the lockdown may be lifted in low-risk communities where public transport may be restored, based on the IATF decision tool.

Medical experts — from former health secretaries to epidemiologists — recommended a modified community quarantine, which will allow the easing of the Luzon lockdown in areas with few or no COVID-19 infections. Even the World Health Organization advised the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions.

Special adviser to the COVID-19 national task force and health reform advocate Dr. Tony Leachon suggested that Metro Manila — the region with the most number of cases in the country — should remain on lockdown until May 15. He added other parts of Luzon can opt for a modified quarantine, particularly in provinces considered as COVID-19 hotspots outside the metro, such as Calabarzon and Central Luzon. He said these measures to control movement will further control the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

The decision tool suggested by the IATF involves five stages. First, it a set of minimum health standards for residents and workers as well as ample capacity in the local healthcare system must be established.

Next, the President must consider the geographic risk of outbreaks, then assess age and health-related risks. After than, Duterte must consider which essential sectors can resume operations, and then think about the possible resumption of public transport, Roque said.

"Lahat po 'yan ay rekomendasyon pa lamang for approval of the President. Ang huling narinig ko sa kalihim ng Department of Transportation ay tinitignan nila ang posibilidad na sa areas na posibleng ma-relax ang ECQ, baka up to 30 percent (ang maibalik)," Roque said during a Thursday media briefing. "Kung ikaw po ay nasa ECQ pa rin, baka 'yan ay hindi applicable."

[Translation: All of these are recommendations for the approval of the President. Last I heard from the Secretary of Transportation is that they are looking at the possibility of bringing back up to 30 percent of public transportation capacity in areas where the ECQ may be relaxed. If your area is still under ECQ, that may not be applicable.]

This would entail the "new normal," where strict spacing will be observed in buses, trains, and while in line to commute, he added.

Roque also revealed the IATF's flowchart, which splits the decision-making process into three facets: health, geography, and transportation. Roque said the task force does not recommend to ease the strict quarantine measures if hospitals and quarantine centers in a certain community would not be able to attend to patients who may contract the disease, judging from the estimated rate of reproduction of infections.

Areas with a more than 70 percent occupancy of critical care facilities and are projected to see cases double in less than a week are deemed in an "acceleration" mode, which merits a sustained ECQ.

"Kapag wala pa ring kapasidad ang health sector to provide medical assistance, acceleration, ECQ pa rin. Kapag ECQ pa rin, walang pinag-uusapan na modification as far as transportation and what-have-you is concerned," said Roque.

Based on the 2018 national data, Metro Manila contributes the largest share of the country’s economy at 36 percent, that is followed by the Calabarzon region with 17 percent, then comes Central Luzon with a share of the country’s gross domestic product at almost 10 percent.

These three regions also have the highest number of COVID-19 patients. 

All the health experts tapped to advise Duterte are not recommending a total lockdown over Luzon, the country's biggest island with over 57 million people.

Despite the recommendations, the decision remains on Duterte's hands. Senator and former presidential aide Bong Go said the announcement will be made today, but no other details were provided. The President usually addresses the public in a pre-recorded message aired late at night.

Roque said he last spoke with the President on Tuesday, adding that he is not sure if Duterte will proceed with the important announcement today.

"Si Senator Bong Go ang nagsabi na magdedesisyon siya today. Ang narinig ko pong huli sa bibig mismo ng Presidente, it could have been yesterday, it could have been on April 30 depending on his decision dahil kapag siya ay nag-desisyon na may mga areas na magre-relax ng ECQ ay baka maglabasan ang tao," the Malacañang spokesman said, noting that Duterte will make use of the "best advice" from the Cabinet as well as medical experts.

[Translation: It was Senator Bong Go who said that he (Duterte) will decide today. What I last heard from the President’s mouth is that his decision could have been (made) yesterday, it could have been on April 30 depending on his decision, as he feared that people might go out of their homes if he decides to lift the ECQ in some areas.]

There's also a tool proposed by the IATF to determine a population's vulnerability to the disease based on age and preexisting medical conditions, Roque added.

IATF Spokesperson Karlo Norales earlier said that local officials will be more confident to revise the current lockdown guidelines if testing capabilities continue to go up. There are only 17 accredited testing centers nationwide, which can test over 3,000 samples daily.

The Philippines now has 6,981 cases of COVID-19. The country has also been seeing a rise in the number or recoveries, which is now at 722. The death toll has risen to 462.

Roque has repeatedly said that while the ECQ has proven to be effective in slowing down infections, authorities know that concerns on public health must be balanced with the need for people to return to their jobs and make a living.