Covid-19 restrictions expected to ease as infections fall in Manila, but alarming surges elsewhere

An elderly woman receives her first dose of Sinovac's Covid-19 vaccine in Manila, on May 26, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - The Philippines is seeing a worrying spike in coronavirus infections outside the capital Manila.

Covid-19 cases in Metro Manila have been falling after a sweeping lockdown in March and April.

But cases elsewhere, especially in the country's central and southern parts, have been rising lately. More people have also been dying in these areas, as hospital beds run out.

"We are looking closely at these regions," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters on Friday (May 28).

The government is ready to tighten quarantine restrictions and ramp up hospital capacities in places seeing a surge, she said. More vaccine doses will also be sent there.

The bulk of the vaccine is currently deployed to Metro Manila and a few other high-risk areas.

Metro Manila remains the epicentre, with 43 per cent of cases recorded there.

But cases have plunged by 80 per cent to around 1,000 a day from the peak of a surge in late March to April in the region, which spans 16 cities and is home to some 13 million.

Elsewhere, though, the coronavirus continues to spread.

The Philippines reported 8,748 new coronavirus infections on Friday, its highest single-day increase this month. Deaths rose by 187 on Friday to 20,566 overall.

The Philippines has recorded 1.2 million coronavirus cases.

Surges are being reported in the Visayas island cluster in central Philippines and in the vast southern island of Mindanao. Close to half the nation's population of some 100 million are in the Visayas and Mindanao.

Densely populated cities in Mindanao like Davao, home town of President Rodrigo Duterte, are seeing infection growth rates as high as 49 per cent.

Puerto Princesa, a popular resort city in the Visayas, has about 20 people out of every 100,000 with Covid-19. Infections there are growing by about 40 per cent a day.

In Cagayan de Oro, a key gateway in northern Mindanao, some 73 per cent of hospital beds are already occupied.

"Our Covid referral hospital is already on Code Red… People are dying in emergency rooms," Mr Joseph Ben Deveza, 48, a former reporter in Cagayan de Oro, told The Straits Times.

Cagayan de Oro saw cases spike just as the outbreak in Metro Manila began to ease. In less than two months, active cases in the city leapt from just 139 on March 23 to 1,060 as at Friday.

Total cases rose from about 4,000 to as many as 7,000.

"People became complacent because the number of cases was relatively low in March. Then they started going out in April," city epidemiologist Teodulfo Joselito Retuya told the online news site Rappler.

He said people travelled out of the city for the Holy Week break, and brought the virus back to Cagayan de Oro with them.

The city's mayor is now asking a task force overseeing the response to the pandemic to impose tighter shelter-at-home and travel restrictions in Cagayan de Oro.

The task force is set to again recalibrate quarantine restrictions across the country for next month.

It is expected to ease quarantine curbs in Metro Manila and four nearby provinces to allow more businesses such as gyms and Internet cafes to reopen, restaurants to take in more dine-in patrons, and churches to accept more congregants.

Data trackers have cautioned against easing restrictions in Metro Manila.

"While we believe we can relax restrictions, we think we should try to retain the GCQ (general community quarantine) at this time because the cases are still significant," said Professor Guido David, a spokesman for the University of the Philippines-based Octa Research Group.

"We want to avoid situations wherein people become very complacent because they feel that the situation has improved significantly, that there are no more cases when in fact there are still cases," he said.

Prof David said he would rather see cases in Metro Manila fall to 400 a day before more people are allowed to go out and mingle.

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