Cebu City looms as Philippines' new Covid-19 epicentre

Policemen at a checkpoint along a road in Cebu City, on June 24, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - The Philippines is sending more doctors, drones and other resources to Cebu City amid signs the key hub is emerging as the country's new epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

"You can just see the numbers," Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano told ABS-CBN News Channel on Monday (June 29).

Cebu now has over 5,500 cases of Covid-19 and at least 156 have died there, the Health Ministry noted on Saturday.

The city now has more cases than Metropolitan Manila's largest city, Quezon, which has about 3,000.

It is also outpacing other cities in terms of the number of cases over the past two weeks: close to 1,000. By comparison, Quezon City had 364 and Manila 280.

Cebu is the top commercial and tourist hub in central Philippines with a population of about a million.

"Cebu City is where Metro Manila was when it was seeing a surge in Covid-19 cases from March 24 to April 13," Mr Carlito Galvez, who heads a task force overseeing the government's efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, said on Monday.

"We are seeing an alarming rise in severe and critical cases... even death rates."

He reported that at one hospital, 86 out of 122 Covid-19 patients died less than 48 hours after they were admitted: "This means we're not detecting severe cases fast enough."

Three in 10 suspected Covid-19 patients in Cebu are turning up positive.

Hospital beds have run out and health workers are exhausted and overwhelmed.

Mr Galvez said there are only seven big hospitals in Cebu that can handle a surge in coronavirus cases. By comparison, Metro Manila has at least 46 of these hospitals.

The city's biggest hospital has 46 doctors, 79 nurses and 68 other staff who are in quarantine, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

Many patients are on wait lists as hospitals are already full.

"The morale of our nurses is simply very low right now. They need much support," Dr Peter Mancao, public relations officer of the Cebu Medical Society, told the Inquirer.

Many nurses have been wanting to quit for "fear of the unknown" and lack of compensation for the risks they are taking, said Dr Joseph Stephen Descallar, president of the Cebu chapter of the Philippine Nurses Association.

The Health Ministry is sending about 40 of its rural doctors to Cebu to reinforce health workers there.

But some of these doctors have complained that they are being deployed without clear guidelines concerning their safety, protection, lodging and insurance coverage.

They fear that arrangements with hospitals where they would be assigned could lead to abuses.

The military is also sending a team of nine doctors, 10 nurses and 13 medical aides.

Police special forces, drones and helicopters are also being deployed to help the government implement shelter-at-home and movement restrictions.

Cebu has been on hard lockdown since Wednesday (June 24). About 100 checkpoints have been set up around the city to make sure everyone stays home, while only those on "essential runs" can go out.

Mr Galvez said apart from Cebu, the rest of the Philippines seems to have the outbreak under control, although around 1,000 new cases are still being reported daily.

"From acceleration, we're now seeing a deceleration," he said.

He said most previous hotspots like Metro Manila are now presenting "low to moderate risks".

He said the country's "positivity rate" - the number of confirmed cases against those tested - had dropped to 6 per cent, below the 10 per cent threshold set by the World Health Organisation.

"We are winning in terms of thresholds," he said.

President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman, Mr Harry Roque, meanwhile, took jabs at those criticising the government's response. He said: "If the government did not act quickly, we could have seen three million cases by now instead of just 30,000."

The Health Ministry reported 985 new cases on Monday, bringing the total to 36,438. Eleven more died, raising the tally to 1,255.

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