‘Have we reached peak yet?’

Jovic Yee

MANILA (INQUIRER/ANN)- It has been almost two months since the country was nearly ground to a halt by the COVID-19 outbreak which has sickened close to 9,000 Filipinos, and health authorities are ramping up tests to see whether the contagion has been contained.

Though the majority in the country had started to phase in to the “new normal”, it remains to be seen if the worst is over and whether the government’s efforts have been successful in containing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes the severe respiratory disease.

The Philippine Department of Health is cautious about saying that it had “flattened the curve”, acknowledging that there are limitations in the data available to the agency.

As of Saturday, the department recorded an additional 156 infections, bringing the national total to 8,928 cases. The number of recovered patients increased by 40 to 1,124.

The death toll, though, rose to 603 with 24 more succumbing to the disease. Worldwide, more than 3.3 million are afflicted.

Workers in protective suits wait outside a crematorium facility as the cremation process takes two hours in Manila. PHOTO: AFP

Over the last month, the reported number of new cases has stayed at around 200 daily. A spike was seen only on April 6 when 414 new infections were reported.

Similarly, daily reported deaths during the same period was around 20, except on April 12 when the number rose to 50.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire earlier said that there were “indications” the epidemic curve was flattening. For one thing, she said, the case doubling time had increased from three to five days. That meant that it took more time for more people to be infected than previously.

“But since we should be looking at one’s onset of symptoms, we couldn’t say yet that we have flattened the curve. But we are improving in our case doubling time,” she said.

“It’s too early for us to say that we have already reached the peak of our cases. Remember, we are doing expanded testing in different areas of the country and we expect the numbers to increase because of that since we will be able to detect more cases,” Vergeire said.

According to Johns Hopkins University, a country is flattening the curve, or is able to control the spread of the disease, when it is able to “reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases from one day to the next”.

“This helps prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed. When a country has fewer new COVID-19 cases emerging today than it did on a previous day, that’s a sign that the country is flattening the curve,” it said.

According to Dr Beverly Ho, health department director for health promotion and communication service, they couldn’t categorically say that the curve had flattened.

That is due to several factors such as the gaps in reporting as well as the limited capacity to test suspected cases, she said.

“Why are we so careful about it? It’s because we know the issues with the data. We know the limitations. To call it as such would be irresponsible from our end. We don’t want to say it because it might be scientifically inaccurate,” Ho told reporters earlier.

“But if you’re talking about if there are in-dications that it’s flattening, yes it is. We all want the good news. It’s just difficult to say it scientifically,” she added.

The department earlier targetted an average daily testing capacity of 8,000 by April 30.

The department, however, failed to meet its target. As of Friday, the 20 laboratories nationwide it had accredited to do tests could only process a maximum of 6,420.

The highest actual number of tests being conducted was 4,907.

Vergeire explained that if they could conduct at least 8,000 daily tests they would be “able to somehow correctly detect and see the actual picture” of the outbreak in the country.

Also, this would mean that more individuals under their expanded testing protocol could be accommodated. Currently, priority is given to persons and healthcare workers who are severely ill, and those who are symptomatic with pre-existing ailments and belong to the vulnerable population such as the elderly and pregnant women.

As the testing capacity increases, those with mild symptoms as well as the asymptomatic but have been exposed to a known case or recently went abroad would also be tested.

On Friday, Vergeire said 87 per cent of the new cases came from only two areas – in the National Capital Region (NCR) and Barangay Kalunasan, where the Cebu City Jail, the most populous jail in the country, is located.

“The Department of Health is closely coordinating with the local government units to contain the virus in NCR and in closed-setting facilities such as the jail in Barangay Kalunasan,” she said.

According to the department’s data, more than half of the country’s 81 provinces have not reported any COVID-19 case for the past two weeks.