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ECQ reduces virus transmission 

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The imposition of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), which shuttered businesses, schools, and upended daily life, has been critical in reducing transmission and deaths due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), according to a report published by the University of the Philippines (UP).

The Covid-19 forecasts in the Philippines: Post-ECQ Report said the rate of virus transmission has been "decreasing" since the beginning of the quarantine in March until May.

"ECQ was successful despite limited testing and contact tracing in the country," the report read.

However, the experts that published the report noted that such a positive trend is "irreversible" and that the spread of the virus in the country is "not yet controlled" despite other provinces displaying "decelerating trend".

Citing data from the Department of Health, the report said that for the National Capital Region (NCR) and Cebu City, the number of new confirmed cases remains "very high". The pandemic risk levels in Batangas, Davao City, and Zamboanga City are also "still significant".

Experts urged the government to continue significant restrictions in the NCR -- one of the most densely populated areas in the world -- and Cebu City, and expand the same as necessary to other high-risk areas.

"Even in areas under GCQ (general community quarantine) or those not under community quarantine, vigilance is still needed in order to ensure that any new cases are immediately detected and new outbreaks prevented. Our goal ultimately is not just to flatten the curve but to bend it downwards," the report said.

Even as there are areas where the pandemic seems to be contained, complacency should be out of the question because it would take "just one spreader to start a second wave of the pandemic".

The experts warned that the likelihood of a resurgence is not a question of "if" but "where and how bad".

"The virus is still with us and we have not yet developed herd immunity. In order to sustain the gains from the last ECQ and to build momentum towards pandemic deceleration, the government must ensure that health systems are capable of detecting, testing, isolating, and treating every case of Covid-19, as well as tracing every contact," the report read.

Should a threat of a pandemic become significant, the experts said a mechanism should be set for placing a province or a local government unit back in ECQ.

"The threat of Covid-19 will still remain unless a vaccine is widely available. We need to provide criteria or a set of triggers not only for de-escalation but also to escalate restrictions that are clearly explained to the public," it said.

'Expand testing capacity'

The experts reiterated a previous recommendation to further expand testing capacity as the country reopens certain sectors of the economy.

A priority is the testing of employees in the economic sectors initially reopened, followed by other sectors.

In addition, the government should also study the use of local trials of group testing protocols. Group testing is the method where swab specimens from multiple individuals are tested using a single test kit, according to the report.

They also suggested the trial of randomized testing, possibly using group testing, saying this may provide "a more reliable basis for determining prevalence rates and may be potentially used for smarter workplace-based infection control policies".

Nevertheless, it lauded the government for ramping up testing to up to 10,000 tests per day. Currently, the goal is to conduct 30,000 tests by the end of May.

"While this arguably may have caused an increase in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases, it has given us a better picture of the state of the pandemic in the country that could serve as basis for the recalibration of the restrictions in the next few days," the report read.

'Fund more research'

The experts also suggested commissioning studies on people's mobilities in areas under quarantine as a basis for policy decisions.

"These studies, using mobile (location) data and drilling down to the barangay level, could provide scientific evidence on what has changed when we moved from ECQ to GCQ or MECQ (modified)," the report said.

At the same time, they called on the Congress to allocate funds to government and other higher education institutions such as UP for further research on Covid-19 that include developing effective treatment methods and cheaper platforms of testing.

"These and other strategic concerns need focused study given the duration before a vaccine, if any, could be deployed. The best minds in the country from all institutions should come together instead of working in silos and exchange and test ideas," they said.

An aggressive government information drive is also recommended to raise awareness on citizens' and businesses' "responsibilities" in the new normal.

"We exhort government to further refine and harmonize the various guidelines regarding the MECQ and ensure that they are cascaded to stakeholders. It also is important that government messaging should be made clearer and guidelines are localized effectively," they said.

The report was written by UP professors and OCTA research fellows/associate Guido David, Ranjit Singh Rye, and Ma. Patricia Agbulos, with contributions from UP professors Erwin Alampay, Rodrigo Angelo Ong, Benjamin Vallejo Jr., Ideacorp Inc. CEO Emmanuel Lallana, and Civika Asian Development Academy Managing Director Elmer Soriano.

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