By Analou De Vera
As the month-long enforcement of the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine measures is scheduled to be completed on April 12, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that it is still unpredictable when the Philippines will reach the peak number of COVID-19 cases.
“When will the peak happen, that is very unpredictable because it certainly is not going to happen before the 12th of April. The question will be: how do we continue on modifying the enhanced community quarantine after the 12th of April,” said WHO Country Representative Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe in a television interview.
Abeyasinghe said that the enhanced community quarantine is only an opportunity “to flatten the curve which means you are seeing a delay in the happening of that peaking” and it helps in buying time to enable the health system to capably contain or mitigate this outbreak.
“Our assessment (is that it is) very difficult at this point to say that the peak is going to happen ‘exactly on this day’ because that is influenced by multiple factors including geographical spread, population affected. Right now, we are seeing a predominant focusing of the outbreak in and around NCR (National Capital Region) but increasing reports are coming (in on) cases being reported from other regions as well. So we need to take all (of) that into consideration,” he said.
Large-scale community transmission
The WHO also advised countries to prepare for a large-scale community transmission of COVID-19 as this global health scare is “unlikely to disappear” anytime soon.
WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Dr. Takeshi Kasai said that although the spread of the new virus is currently being observed in Western Europe and North America, “the epidemic is still far from over in Asia and the Pacific.”
“I understand people’s worry as this is a new virus. We still don’t know how long this COVID-19 fight will continue. There are people around the world —24 hours, seven days— they are doing their best to fight this COVID-19. But it is unlikely that this virus will disappear next week or even [in] next months,” said Kasai in a recent virtual press briefing.
“This battle is going to be a long battle. We want every country to respond according to their epidemiological situations and prepare also for the large scale community outbreak and buy time with suppressing the virus spread,” he added.
Kasai said that the preparation for large-scale community transmission must involve every “corner and community of every country.”
“We need all local authorities and communities to be fully engaged,” he said.
Mass testing not yet feasible
Abeyasinghe said that it is not yet feasible to conduct mass testing for COVID-19 in the Philippines.
“What we are seeing at this point in time is that the Philippines is making a good effort to strengthen its testing capacity and this is very welcome. But we are still quite a long way from actually ensuring that everybody can have access to testing,” he said.
“There is a desire to do that but the limitations are dictated by global supply chains and the massive demand that is there for all these testing materials from countries around the world today. So, it is a little more complicated than just wanting to do it or having the resources to do it,” he added.
Abeyasinghe said that they are working with the Philippine government to further enhance its testing capacity to conduct mass testing. “We are hoping that it will be feasible but we know it cannot be done immediately,” he said.
“We have to be careful on implementing a correct testing strategy based on the testing capacity that is available in the country. But as testing capacity improves, we need to expand that and use the data to better control and suppress the outbreak,” he added.
Case fatality rate ‘quite high’
WHO Technical Advisor Matthew Griffith said that the number of COVID-19 mortalities in the country is “quite high because the Philippines has taken a testing strategy (that is) prioritizing severe cases.”
“That means your denominator is going to be restricted to people who have more severe (symptoms of the) disease. People with more severe disease (symptoms) are more likely to die than people with more mild disease (symptoms), so that proportion goes up,” said Griffith.
“I think, that’s one thing in respect to the high proportion of deaths in the Philippines that is essentially because the way the Philippines chose to test and this testing strategy is much influenced by the global shortage of laboratory reagents, laboratory supplies– which is also related to restricted travel and trade that is happening in many areas,” he added.
“With respect to the deaths in the Philippines what we know is that it was not related to lack of ventilators in the Philippines,” he added.
As of this writing, the death toll already hit 88 as the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Philippines climbed to 2,084. Meanwhile, the total number of recoveries is now at 49.
The Department of Health said that the increasing number of confirmed cases is due to the enhanced testing capacity.
Kasai said that there is still no specific treatment or vaccine for COVID-19.
“But researchers and institutions, both public and private, from around the world are working so hard to develop those tools,” said Kasai.
“There are, as of today, more than 50 candidate vaccines and several clinical trials for treatments are ongoing and some of those prototype vaccines are even moving into human trials. This is a remarkable speed and I hope that vaccine development would be as fast as we want, but it will still take some more time,” he added.