Physicians group warns of rise in COVID-19 cases with reduced distancing in public transport

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 14) — Easing the physical distancing measures in public transport may only contribute to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the country, a group of physicians warned on Monday.

Dr. Mario Panaligan, president of Philippine College of Physicians, told CNN Philippines that the medical sector is "worried and concerned" about the implementation of the new government directive, saying this can increase the chances of transmitting and acquiring the coronavirus.

"There is really a chance for the number to increase further," Panaligan said in an interview with The Source. "Just remember that's still high up to now. We have not yet really controlled the virus. That number can further increase by of course decreasing the distance."

"Just remember that this infection is droplet-based, and therefore, there is a minimum distance required for us to avoid any form of transmission," he added.

From the one-meter distance recommended by the World Health Organization, the Transportation Department reduced the distance between commuters inside mass transit to 0.75 meter starting Monday to accommodate more riders.

The distance will then be further reduced to 0.5 meter by Sept. 28, and will decrease to 0.3 meter by Oct. 12.

Panaligan argued that the initial 0.25-meter reduction already spells a huge difference for commuters. He said that due to the nature of the virus, the risk of transmission may further spike because of limited airflow and poor ventilation in some public vehicles.

The Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19, likewise, is asking the government to reverse its decision to ease the physical distance in mass transport that may contribute to an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Antonio Dans, a clinical epidemiologist from HPAAC, said it is still too soon to relax the social distancing measures in public utility vehicles.

"Hindi ang tanong, babawasan ba natin ang social distancing o hindi, ang tanong kailan natin ito pwede gawin. Sa tingin namin, pag titingnan natin ang curve ng pandemic na ito, masyadong maaga pa at malamang dumami lalo ang kaso at bumagal ang recovery kung gawin natin ito ngayon," he said.

[Translation: The question isn't whether we should reduce physical distancing, the question is when should this be done. We think, looking at the curve of the pandemic, it's too early and cases are likely to rise and recovery to slow if we do this now.]

He said they presented a model to the IATF showing how many more people would get infected based on the latest data including the number of cases and transmission rate of the virus, hoping it would guide their decision on the matter.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III brought up HPAAC's model during a televised meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte late Monday evening.

Duque said he would bring this up at the IATF meeting on Tuesday adding other goups might bring forth other studies with varied results.

The move to ease the physical distancing rules in public transport has raised questions from various sectors, including health experts and netizens alike.

Dans said studies show physical distancing may reduce transmission by 82 percent, for face masks, 85 percent and for face shield, 78 percent.

"According to the studies kasi the mimimum distance is one meter kasi that's how far a droplet travels e," Dans said. "Basta less than one meter ka na, para ka nang magkatabi."

[Translation: According to the studies, the minimum distance is one meter because that's how far a droplet travels.]

Mayors of the National Capital Region— where a bulk of COVID-19 cases had been recorded— also expressed alarm over this, saying they were not consulted before the guidelines were issued.

In line with this, Metro Manila Council Chairman and Parañaque Mayor Edwin Olivarez told CNN Philippines separately that the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force has already vowed to review the latest order.

To date, coronavirus infections in the Philippines have surpassed the 260,000 mark.