Doctor says easing social distancing for commuters makes 'very small difference' in COVID-19 fight

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 18) — The physical distancing currently being implemented in public transportation can still be reduced, as long as riders wear face masks properly and keep their mouth closed while on board, a doctor from the Clean Air Philippines Movement, Inc. (CAPMI) said Friday.

"Air just rotates around the closed space... Useless po 'yung physical distancing of 1 meter. What is important is the proper use of face masks and no talking inside the public transportation," Dr. CAPMI president Leo Olarte told CNN Philippines' The Source, citing the findings of Duke University researchers.

There has been a debate on the plan of the Transportation Department to gradually reduce the required distance between passengers aboard trains, buses, and other public utility vehicles from the current one-meter standard.

The plan — which will cut the required distance to as close as 0.3 meters by mid-October — has also divided members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases. 

Olarte added that there's just a "very small difference" if physical distancing is eased to 0.75 meters, adding that this could even do good for commuters struggling to report to work everyday.

RELATED: Transport group says it's ready for new distancing rules

He batted for the so-called "7 commandments", i.e. wearing of face masks and face shields, no talking and eating while on board, adequate ventilation, not allowing symptomatic persons, and frequent vehicle disinfection — as the way to go.

"We have to revive our economy. Marami rin po ang namamatay kapag gutom sila [Many can die from hunger]," he said, citing that other diseases like tuberculosis should be seen as pressing dangers as well. "There are many diseases arising from poverty... We are for health as doctors, but we know that health also is being favored if the economy is good."

In contrast, former national task force adviser Dr. Tony Leachon said physical distancing is actually king of all preventive measures against infections.

"Malaking bagay talaga 'yung physical distancing. Hindi siya dapat bawasan ng less than one meter [Physical distancing is a big deal. We should not reduce the requirement to less than one meter]," Leachon said, calling the measure the "cornerstone" in controlling COVID-19 cases, citing findings from the medical journal The Lancet.

He said keeping a one-meter space between people would reduce chances of infection by 82 percent, boosting prevention provided by face masks and face shields.

"I think it will be a disaster 'pag binawasan natin 'yun at hindi tayo makaka-flatten ng curve or magiging malala pa in the next few weeks [if we reduce that distancing requirement, we will not be able to flatten the curve and we might see the situation worsen in the next few weeks]," Leachon added.

He said an additional 688 cases may be added to the daily tally — which has averaged 3,000 to 4,000 in the past week — if commuters sit closer to each other.

RELATED: Metro Manila mayors to oppose further easing of distancing rules in PUVs

Meanwhile, Olarte argued that masks are prioritized even abroad, noting that train riders in Japan and Singapore are not as particular to keeping distance more than the proper wearing of masks.

But Leachon said other nations have room to relax their standards, as they have already reduced their number of cases. Taking away the required distance between riders here could even erase gains made in the last six months, he warned.

READ: Social distancing as safety measure is a 'privilege', advocacy group says

The two doctors put forward different alternatives: For Leachon, the win-win solution is to add more jeepneys and buses on the road to accommodate more passengers while keeping the one-meter distance, as well as to improve ventilation.

For Olarte, CAPMI is open to letting drivers and transport authorities reduce the spacing to 0.75 meters, adding that it would also cut the waiting time for train passengers where he said infections could also occur.

The final decision has been elevated to President Rodrigo Duterte, with Cabinet members and even members of the medical community divided on the issue. Economic managers want to make public transport available to more Filipinos so they can go to work and earn a living again.