Fears Of Humanitarian Crisis And Healthcare System Collapse In Philippines Amid Surge In COVID Cases
A health worker receives her first dose of Sinovac Biotech’s Coronavac vaccine at the Ospital ng Malabon (Hospital of Malabon).

New York City – While the Philippines ranks 50 out of the 155 countries that have administered the most COVID-19 vaccines, opposition leaders and health officials fear the collapse of the country’s healthcare system amid a surge in new infections. 

Globally, more than 704 million doses – about 4.6% of the global population – of vaccines have been administered so far, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

As of 5 April, the Philippines has administered 854,063 doses, placing it as the 50th highest of 155 countries, said vaccine “czar” Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr, who is also the chief implementer of the National Task Force against COVID-19 in the country.

Those vaccinated include 789,415 health workers, around 11,000 elderly, and some 7,100 people with comorbidities, he added.

But while the national government touts its successes in vaccination, what is occurring on the ground reflects a different story.

“Inconsistent” Data Underreports Full Capacity Hospitals 
ABS-CBN Data Analytics head Edson Guido

A senior data analyst flagged the “inconsistent” data reporting from the Department of Health (DOH) regarding hospital bed occupancy in the country.

ABS-CBN Data Analytics head Edson Guido said there was conflicting reporting on the occupancy rate of hospitals, particularly in Metro Manila. 

The DOH had initially reported 78% of intensive care unit beds in the region were filled, 78% of isolation beds were utilized, and 60% of ward beds were occupied. Around 60% of ventilators were also in use. 

“The reports on the ground say [bed occupancy] in Metro Manila is full and [patients] were brought to other provinces. So, there seems to be a disconnect in terms of deaths and bed occupancy that the DOH is reporting from what’s happening on the ground,” Guido said. 

A patient is seen in a hospital bed outside the San Juan Medical Center in San Juan City on Thursday.

Philippine hospitals across the country had declared full capacity and many were no longer taking patients. Some private hospitals had switched to offering home care.

The Medical City, an 800-bed hospital in Metro Manila, has three-to-10 day programs that can cost as much as 65,000 pesos (USD $1,340), which includes infection control, virtual monitoring, swabbing and blood extraction services. 

Vice President Leni Robredo, who leads the political opposition, questioned, in a Facebook post last week, these expensive “Home Care Medical Packages,” which only the richest Filipinos can afford. 

“Are there guidelines from the DOH that the Home Care Specialists have to follow to ensure the safety of the people who get sick?” she said. 

The surge is taking its toll on the healthcare workforce as well, as 117 of 180 staff tested positive at the Philippine Orthopedic Center in Manila, forcing the facility to close its outpatient department, which can serve as many as 450 patients a day. 

“When our medical front-liners are getting sick, the threat of collapse of our healthcare system is big. We must control the spread of the disease,” Opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan, in a 3 April statement, said. 

Former president Joseph Estrada spent the night in an emergency room after being rushed to a Manila hospital with COVID-19 complications on 28 March, since regular beds were occupied. Estrada was later admitted to the intensive care unit and is now on a ventilator as his pneumonia worsened, his son said in a Facebook post on Monday. 

Philippine hospitals are at overcapacity, forcing patients to receive treatments in their cars.

Others do not even have the chance to enter a hospital at all. 

“Many have already died inside tents outside hospitals, waiting to be admitted to the ERs, in an ambulance while in transit, at home without receiving any medical help,” Robredo said.

The government is currently planning to allocate more living quarters for healthcare workers in the National Capital Region Plus (NCR Plus), making arrangements with hotels and other lodging service providers. 

Pangilinan warns of a “humanitarian crisis that will overwhelm the country and wipe out families” if the government does not step up its efforts. “Step on the gas. Testing, tracing, isolation, and treatment are the four wheels of the anti-COVID ambulance. Government efforts must be toward accelerating the ambulance to outpace the infection and save all of us,” he said. 

Government Recalibrating Strategy – Vaccinations and Self-Isolation Measures
Vaccine “czar” Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr, (left) who is also the chief implementer of the National Task Force against COVID-19

In response to the continued rise of COVID-19 cases in NCR Plus, the government is recalibrating its immunization efforts towards areas with high infection rates. 

Building herd immunity in high-risks areas such as Metro Manila could address the spike in local transmissions, said vaccine czar Galvez. 

He added that inoculation of at least five million individuals in Metro Manila will jumpstart the process of achieving herd immunity and will enable the government to offset the delays in vaccine deliveries. 

Senator Pangilinan also advised free mass testing, citing Vice President Robredo’s mobile free mass testing initiative called Swab Cab. 

The Swab Cab initiative brings COVID-19 testing to communities through use of buses that were converted into mobile testing sites. The program, started with Robredo’s private sector partners, is meant to augment the government’s testing capacity. 

Both Robredo and Pangilinan highlighted the need for the government, on top of recalibrating its vaccination strategy, to ensure that the people of the Philippines were provided for during self-isolation.

“Those who go on self-isolation and their family must be assured of food,” said Pangilinan. 

Said Robredo: “Have we built a system where people who are self isolating at home would still have access to medical help when necessary? Did [the government] even fix the infrastructure?” 

Strictest Lockdown Measure Implemented In Philippines Capital Region
A delivery driver wears a mask and unloads essential items amid the COVID-19 lockdown

The Philippines’s dramatic surge in cases has forced the government to implement the toughest of 4 lockdown levels until 11 April in Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal. 

Health officials attribute the rising cases to the unexpected spread of more infectious coronavirus variants.

“No one could have probably foreseen how infectious these new variants are and as a result of which we have these ballooning numbers,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told ABS CBN News.

The Philippines nationwide cases data, with recent weeks averages not computed, owing to delays in reporting

As of 8 April, there are 828,366 COVID-19 cases in the Philippines, with 9,216 new cases and 14,119 deaths, the highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. 

The national government had initially placed Metro Manila and its provinces under a General Community Quarantine (GCQ) bubble on 22 March.

A bubble setup is applied to a cluster of people restricted from going in and out of a covered area unless authorized to do so. Going in and out of NCR Plus is limited to essential workers and essential travel. 

Public transportation remains operational, with proper social distancing measures in place. 

However, the GCQ was upgraded to an Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) on 29 March, and was extended to 11 April as daily infections breached 10,000. 

The ECQ limits further movement to accessing essential goods or services, or performing essential work. Religious services, including the past week’s Holy Week and Easter events for Roman Catholics, were shifted online after public gatherings were temporarily banned. 

PH Lags Behind Southeast Asia Neighbours; Temporarily Suspends Use of AstraZeneca Vaccine
Doses administered per 100 people

According to NY Times data, the country in fact lags behind the rest of its Southeast Asian neighbours, having administered 0.9 doses per 100 people as of today, compared to Indonesia’s 2.4 doses and Malaysia’s 1.1 doses. 

The country expects to vaccinate up to 70 million people this year, and has so far received 2 million COVID-19 doses from China-based Sinovac Biotech, and 525,600 vaccine doses from British-Swedish pharma company AstraZeneca. Vaccines from Russia-based Sputnik V are also expected to arrive this month. 

Vaccine deliveries will gradually increase in May and June, with a total of 10.5 million doses from Sinovac, Sputnik V, Novavax, and AstraZeneca. 

However, the announcement by the European Medicines Agency during a 7 April press conference that there appears to be a link between AstraZeneca’s vaccine and very rare cases of blood clots mainly younger women,  has resulted in the Philippines government temporarily suspended use of the vaccine in people under 60. 

“I want to emphasize that this temporary suspension DOES NOT MEAN that the vaccine is unsafe or ineffective. It just means that we are taking precautionary measures to ensure the safety of every Filipino. We continue to underscore that the benefits of vaccination continue to outweigh the risks and we urge everyone to get vaccinated when it’s their turn,” Philippines Food and Drug Administration Director General Rolando Enrique Domingo said in a statement.

Image Credits: ILO/Minette Rimando, IMF Photo/Lisa Marie David, ABS-CBN, Philippine Star/Twitter , HDetalla/Twitter, ABS-CBN, Philippines DOH, NYTimes.

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