Duque backtracks, says PH 'bent' COVID-19 curve

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 15) – The Philippines has "successfully" flattened the curve of coronavirus infections, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said Wednesday.

But he appeared to have taken this back moments later, saying in a series of tweets that the country has "bent" rather than flattened the curve a month after a Luzon-wide lockdown since mid-March.

Duque made the initial statement when asked about the steady rise in local COVID-19 cases, which has reached 57,545 infections as of July 14. Of these, 20,459 have recovered while 1,603 died.

"We have successfully flattened the curve since April. The metrics for arriving at that conclusion of flattening the curve is actually one, the case doubling time of the COVID-19 infection has actually become longer," the Health chief said during the government's Pre-SONA forum.

The case doubling time –– or how fast the number of infections double in an area –– has slowed from a 2.5-day window during the early days of the local outbreak, Duque explained.

Duque said it now takes ​eight days for infections to double ​in the country as of July 15, which he said is past the critical one-week threshold.

"The other metric to say that we've flattened the curve is also the mortality doubling time has also got longer and is now in the moderate risk classification," he added, ​noting that new cases have stabilized to about 200-250 per day.

Duque turned to Twitter to clarify his remarks after getting the ire of netizens, switching to a different term: "bent."

"This means we bent the curve in April after the March ECQ but we are seeing an increase in cases due to the expanded testing capacity and community transmission as we allow movement of people," the Health chief said.

He added that this was expected and was the experience of foreign countries which have revived business activities.

The DOH also said in a statement that “flattening the curve entails decreasing the rate at which the outbreak spreads to gain adequate time for a health system to prepare for a possible surge in cases.”

The department noted flattening the curve is not only dependent on the reported number of cases, but how the cases relate to the health system capacity, as well as the case doubling time.

It added that since the curve was “flattening by late April” as a result of the ECQ in March, additional steps have been made for the COVID-19 response to prepare for the expected surge when restrictions are relaxed, like increase testing capacity, better contact tracing, and prepare hospitals for critical care needs.

New infections recorded the past few days are in the hundreds, with an all-time high increase of 2,434 tallied last July 5.

On Tuesday, Duque mentioned in a separate media briefing that the country needs to pull the epidemic curve down: "Kailangan iliko natin bandang huli 'yung kurba pababa. That is our ultimate objective."

​A health expert who was once a consultant of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases disagreed with Duque's view.

"I don’t think we have flattened the curve based on our increase in cases, number of deaths, and full critical care capacity of NCR and Cebu hospitals. Perhaps DOH should review their own data to guide IATF, whole government and the public of the situation," Dr. Tony Leachon said.

Infectious diseases expert Dr. Benjamin Co told CNN Philippines’ The Final Word that the country still has a lot of work to “flatten the curve.”

Co said if only the country’s testing capacity and quarantine facilities were implemented better during the ECQ, there would have been a better scenario.

“These two important mitigating strategies should have been done together when the ECQ was implemented… a lot of things should have been done during the early stages of the pandemic so that we would not have come to this point,” he said.

On his projections, he said COVID-19 cases in the country will likely breach 60,000 this week if numbers will not go down. Otherwise, this will be reached next week. This is based on the country’s 7-day average ranging from 1,300 to 1,400, and how the backlogs will be addressed, he explained.

Netizens also bashed Duque's pronouncement. "Which planet did he come from?," asked one Twitter user.

A number of lawmakers also refuted the Health chief. Senator Sonny Angara, himself a COVID-19 survivor, pointed out that hospital wards are "filling up again."

"The only thing that is flat are the backs of all the poor patients in fully-occupied COVID wards all around Metro Manila fighting for their lives! 'Wag magbulag-bulagan [Stop acting blind] and act to stop the surge instead of imagining it," added Sen. Migz Zubiri who also battled the disease, pointing out that the country is close to recording the most number of cases in Southeast Asia.

​However, Zubiri said that Duque has since apologized to him over the mix-up. He said he then told the Cabinet official to be careful with his statements.

Back in May, Duque was under fire for claiming that the country is already in the middle of its "second wave" or another surge of COVID-19 cases and that the government has begun controlling the spike in numbers. He also claimed two months ago that the local COVID-19 curve has been flattening, as local health facilities are not being overwhelmed by patients anymore.

His agency later apologized for the confusion and clarified that this remains to be the first wave of the local outbreak.

The official said that since local authorities have flattened the curve, this should be taken as a "window of opportunity to improve and increase" the capacity of the local health system.

RELATED: DOH sets up coordination unit as some hospitals report COVID-19 beds nearly full

Several big hospitals in Metro Manila and Cebu City have declared full capacity for COVID-19 beds in the past few days, just as cases saw a spike as quarantine rules are being eased nationwide.

In May, the Department of Health explained that flattening the curve is not solely based on the number of cases. It includes the health systems' testing capacity as well as ability to manage suspect, probable and confirmed cases.

​The Philippines has 58,850 confirmed cases as of July 15, of which 20,976 have recovered and 1,614 died. Duque said more than 90 percent of patients have mild or no symptoms.