COVID-19 upsurge likely as public transport distancing is eased

The increased capacity in public transportation will trigger a rise in new COVID-19 cases in Metro Manila in the following weeks, analysts from the OCTA Research team warned.

Based on its monitoring report released on Tuesday, OCTA said that the use of public transportation in the capital region has "increased slowly but steadily in the past week."

The group said the number of new COVID-19 cases in Metro Manila, which is currently the country's coronavirus epicenter, is expected to shoot up in the next two weeks.

The Department of Transportation (DOTr) is currently implementing a "one-seat apart" policy in all modes of public transportation after it was approved during a Cabinet meeting presided over by President Duterte on October 12.

The eased distance rule in PUVs aims to accommodate more passengers as many workers continued to return to their workplaces with the reopening of the economy.

Meanwhile, OCTA is also pushing for the continued imposition of general community quarantine (GCQ) in the NCR and called on the public to still strictly observe the minimum health standards.

"The virus is still with us, and people must remain disciplined and vigilant. Nonetheless, we acknowledge that this GCQ will be more open and relaxed than the GCQs in the past to promote the health of the economy," it said.

OCTA's latest monitoring report showed that there is a continuous decrease in new COVID-19 cases in the Philippines as 1,870 new COVID-19 infections were recorded from October 18 to 24, lower than the 2,237 cases reported from October 11 to 17.

However, OCTA estimated that average daily new cases in NCR from October 11 will increase by 200 to 300 if tests from the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) are included. The PRC earlier decided to suspend its testing operations due to debt issues with the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth).

The PhilHealth-PRC debt row, OCTA noted, has been largely affecting the country's daily screening for possible infections, and has "crippled" the isolation, quarantine, and contact tracing programs of the government.

As economic activities continue to expand amid the pandemic, OCTA also urged the government as well as the public to sustain efforts to avoid another surge in COVID-19 cases in the country.

Researchers are also pushing local officials in areas identified as "high-risk" to further intensify their testing, tracing, and isolation efforts to reverse the increase of transmissions at the community level.

Identified as high-risk areas in Metro Manila are Pasay, Makati, Pasig, and Mandaluyong due to the high daily caseload, high attack rate, and high hospital occupancy rate. While in Luzon, those considered as high-risk are Baguio City and Itogon (Benguet), Calamba (Laguna), Angono, Cainta, and Taytay (Rizal), Lucena (Quezon), Ilagan (Isabela), Batangas City (Batangas), and General Trias (Cavite).

Also included in OCTA's list of high-risk areas are Iloilo City (Iloilo City), San Carlos City (Negros Occidental), Davao City (Davao del Sur), and Butuan City (Agusan del Norte), in Visayas and Mindanao.

"To this end, we reiterate the need for the national and the local governments to strictly monitor and enforce compliance with minimum health standards such as physical distancing, the wearing of face mask and face shields, and proper hygiene," the team said.

The OCTA team is an independent and interdisciplinary research group that has been studying the COVID-19 outbreak in the Philippines. It is composed primarily of UP faculty members and alumni with contributors from the University of Santo Tomas and Providence College, USA.