PH bars entry of foreigners

The Philippines will close its border to foreigners anew and restrict the number of Filipinos entering the country starting this Saturday, as authorities battle to contain a spike in coronavirus infections.

This developed as the transmission of COVID-19 in Metro Manila has recently reached its highest level since May last year, the OCTA Research Group said on Wednesday, describing the situation as a “serious surge” in infections.

The group, made up of university professors, noted that the National Capital Region—which accounts for a tenth of the population and a third of the country’s economy — posted a 78 percent increase in new cases on Tuesday compared to a week ago.

The government’s temporary measures come after the number of daily cases hit a seven-month high of 5,404 on Monday, and experts predict the figure could double by the end of March.

Most of the active infections are in Metro Manila where targeted lockdowns, night-time curfews, and a stay-at-home order for all children are being used to curb the spread.

The ban on overseas arrivals was announced late Tuesday by the government’s COVID-19 task force and takes effect March 20.

Overseas Filipino workers will be exempt, but the number of passenger arrivals will be limited to 1,500 a day, it said.

Ban first enforced last year

The Philippines first enforced a ban on travelers from countries with confirmed localized transmissions of the novel coronavirus on March 12 last year. Filipino citizens and their dependents, foreigners who are permanent residents of the Philippines, and holders of Philippine diplomatic visas were exempted.

Foreign nationals with long-term visas were allowed to enter the country starting August 1 as the country continued to ease air travel restrictions.

Last February 16, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) expanded the list of foreigners who could enter the Philippines – those who had visas issued as of March 20, 2020, as well as those who have valid and existing visas at the time of entry.

Authorities have blamed the infection surge on poor compliance with health protocols, such as wearing a mask and face shield in public, and more contagious variants of the virus.

“The reproduction number in NCR increased to Rt = 1.96, its highest level since May 2020,” the OCTA Group said in its latest report, released just as the country marks one year under quarantine to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

A reproduction number or R naught of more than 1 means that the infection is spreading to more people, since one infected person can pass the virus to one or more individuals. A reproduction number of 2 means 2 people can be infected by one COVID-19 patient.

A year after ordering the first lockdown that crippled the country’s economy, threw millions out of work and triggered record hunger, President Rodrigo Duterte urged Filipinos to “not despair.”

“It’s a small thing in our lives. We went through (things that) are more severe, more difficult and brought more tears,” Duterte said Monday.

His remarks sparked anger among social media users and opposition lawmakers who accused him of belittling the suffering of health workers and people who have lost loved ones to the disease.

Surge matches July peak

The Department of Health Epidemiology Bureau said the current surge is as serious as the peak of the pandemic last year in July 2020.

The bureau’s chief, Alethea de Guzman, said Metro Manila had also reached last year’s peak of COVID-19 infections.

A “steep rise” in the number of cases has also been observed in Bohol, while a “gradual slowdown” has been seen in Cebu province, and the cities of Cebu, Mandaue, and Lapu-Lapu, De Guzman said.

Members of the OCTA Research group said the country could see 11,000 new COVID-19 cases daily by the end of March.

De Guzman said that while several coronavirus variants of concern have been detected in the Philippines, only 7 percent of samples that underwent genome sequencing tested positive for the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil variants.

However, the Philippine Genome Center can only sequence 750 samples each week due to logistical constraints.

The DOH warned that “cases will increase by 28 times instead of just three times after a month” if the three variants of concern become dominant in the country.

De Guzman stressed that the transmission can only be contained by intensive contact tracing, isolation, and COVID-19 testing efforts.

The government earlier admitted that contact tracing is the weakest link in its pandemic response.

About 216,000 health workers have received their first jab so far, only about 12 percent of the government’s goal to inoculate 1.7 million medical staff by mid-April before distributing vaccines to the elderly and poor.

DOH backs decision

The DOH on Wednesday supported the decision of the COVID-19 task force to limit passenger arrivals from abroad.

“We support the suspension but again this is only temporary. Give us time to bring these numbers down,” de Guzman said at an online briefing. 

Inbound travelers accounted for 27 percent of the cases involving variants of concern in the country, De Guzman added.

The National Task Force Against COVID-19 said on Tuesday it would suspend the entry of foreigners and returning overseas Filipinos who are not OFWs from March 20 to April 19. Only 1,500 people will be allowed to enter the country during this period.

Galvez said the number of passengers allowed entry each day will be increased once the cases go down.

“We’ll see in the next two to three weeks if we can already accommodate additional incoming travelers,” De Guzman said.

Air carriers express concern

The Air Carriers Association of the Philippines (ACAP) expressed concern over the new travel restrictions, saying this would further hurt the already distressed airline industry.

ACAP vice chairman Roberto Lim told a Senate hearing Wednesday the local aviation industry lost an estimated P65 billion last year due to travel restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The airlines have already laid off 33 percent of their employees, or about 5,500 workers, he said.

Lim said the solution was not to impose new restrictions but to provide more accommodation for incoming passengers who must be quarantined for at least five days.

Cebu Pacific Air (CEB) on Wednesday announced it will comply with the new travel guidelines and cancel flights at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to and from Narita (Tokyo) and Nagoya from March 18 to April 18, 2021.

CEB said travelers affected by the cancellations will be informed through contact details provided in the booking.

The airline urged the affected passengers to avail of travel options through the Manage Booking portal on its official website within 30 days from the date of departure.

Travelers may rebook within 90 days without any additional cost; store the amount in a virtual wallet valid for two years and use this to either book a new flight or pay for add-ons (e.g. baggage allowance, seat selection, etc.), or seek a refund.

PH bars entry of foreigners
RISING NUMBERS. Department of Health data based on the Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Trends shows that with an increase in mobility of people in the country starting December, an upward trend in cases is seen

4,387 new cases

The Philippines logged 4,387 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, bringing the total to 635,698, as six laboratories failed to submit their data on time, the Department of Health (DOH) reported.

This marked the sixth consecutive day in which more than 4,000 daily cases were reported.

The DOH reported 18 new fatalities, bringing the death toll from COVID-19 to 12,866, which is 2.02 percent of the total cases.

The DOH also reported that there were 374 patients who recovered, bringing the total recoveries to 561,099, which is 88.3 percent of the total.

The total active cases continued to climb to another record-high of 61,733 cases, which is 9.7 percent of all cases. Of the active cases, 93 percent are mild; 3.8 percent are asymptomatic; 1.2 percent are critical; 1.3 percent are severe; and 0.68 percent are moderate.

The DOH also reported that, nationwide, 53 percent of the total ICU bed capacity are available; 60 percent of the total isolation bed capacity are available; 67 percent of the total ward bed capacity are available; and 72 percent of the total number of ventilators are available.

A total of 215,997 individuals have been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of March 15, two weeks since the Philippines launched its vaccination program.

Duque: No to stricter quarantine

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Wednesday said he does not recommend that Metro Manila be placed under a stricter quarantine level as a whole, but said this might change if cases continue to rise despite granular lockdowns.

The DOH said there were 25,732 active COVID-19 cases in Metro Manila, which accounted for 2,842 of the new infections for the day.

“The localized lockdowns are starting to yield positive outcomes,” Duque said in an interview on ANC’s Headstart.

Metro Manila is currently under general community quarantine, the second loosest lockdown level, but mayors have implemented restrictions in targeted areas within their constituencies.

The region also observes a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and a ban on minors going outdoors.

In Manila, the occupancy rate in quarantine facilities is now a high of 81 percent, Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso said.

The city has a total of 14 quarantine facilities, one of which is dedicated to suspected COVID-19 patients awaiting their swab test results.

Domagoso said the occupancy rate in the city’s six district hospitals has also increased.

From the usual 30-percent occupancy rate for the past months, Domagoso said the current hospital occupancy rate is now at 47 percent.

Hospital beds full

Duterte’s government has been flayed over its handling of the pandemic, which has infected more than 630,000 people. Nearly 13,000 have died.

The hospital bed occupancy rate is at 59 percent in Metro Manila and surrounding provinces, said presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who tested positive for COVID-19.

But at the Philippine General Hospital, one of the country’s main facilities treating COVID-19 patients, 80 percent of beds for patients diagnosed with the disease were occupied and its intensive care wards full, a spokesman said.

The government hopes to inoculate 70 million people by the end of this year.

More than a million doses of vaccines developed by China’s Sinovac and British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca have been delivered in the past two weeks.

The government hopes to have “a stable supply of vaccines starting April or May”, said vaccine czar Carlito Galvez.

In other developments:

* Immigration officials said work at the Bureau of Immigration (BI) main office in Intramuros, Manila will resume on March 18, after a three-day closure for a thorough sanitation and disinfection of the building to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

* Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega said the number of calls received by the One Hospital Command Center has been going up due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, reaching 250 to 300 calls a day. The One Hospital Command Center is a centralized network where individuals needing medical attention would be referred to service providers such as hospitals, quarantine facilities and medical transportation.

* The Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) said the administration’s efforts to curb COVID-19 have been a failure, one year after it imposed a widespread community quarantine. “After a year of lockdown, the government COVID-19 response is nothing but a failure, incompetent, inefficient, and negligent. It has not solved the spread of the disease and infection but rather increased the number of people infected every day,” the AHW said in a statement. With AFP and PNA

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