MANILA — The World Health Organization on Friday described as "worrying phenomenon" the increase in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in several regions in the Philippines.
Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO representative to the Philippines, said though the increase in COVID-19 cases was expected due to expanded testing, several "issues have contributed to increased transmission."
Last week, the Department of Health identified Cebu province and Cebu island in Region VII and Ormoc City, Southern Leyte, Leyte at Samar in Region VIII as emerging COVID-19 hotspots.
It later identified several provinces in Mindanao as places that are also seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Abeyasinghe said that while the “main contributing factors” are not yet clear, “it has become clear that the compliance with the quarantining guidelines and the procedures were not optimum in Cebu.”
He said the “stigma” associated with the disease also prompted some people to refuse testing and to practice isolation or quarantine.
“But we also need to recognize that as we detect more positive cases, we seem to be seeing a concentration of those in some areas of the the country, namely in the National Capital Region, at this point of time, and in Region 7, especially Cebu City,” he said.
“Also, we are seeing increasing evidence of a larger number of cases being reported from Region IV-A (Calabarzon), Region III (Central Luzon), Region X (Northern Mindanao), Region XII (Soccsksargen) and Region VIII (Eastern Visayas). And maybe a few other regions. This is a worrying phenomenon,” he said.
He urged Filipinos to comply with health protocols not only to reduce transmission.
“The message here is if we want to minimize the damage to economies, we need to work individually and communally together to practice what we need to do from a physical distancing point of view,” he said.
Meanwhile, Abeyasinghe said the rise in cases in other regions could be due to increased mobility.
“These are what we call the return of locally stranded individuals or repatriates coming from other countries,” he said.
Abeyasinghe meanwhile lauded government efforts to expand testing.
"It is good that new cases are being detected in very large numbers because of expansion of testing capacity,” he said.
He said this allowed the country to suppress the further spread of the disease.
“As we expand testing, we would expect more cases recorded. In June the Philippines recorded a little over 20,000 cases that was about 50% of all of the cases reported in the Philippines, a little less than 50%,” he said.
At the same time, the WHO pointed out that only 23% of COVID-related deaths were reported during the same period.
“So what we see is a large number of cases is being detected but the number of deaths is reducing. And this is because the Philippines used the period of lockdown to expand testing capacity and to expand health care facilities,” he said.
During the past days, the government has reacted to reports that the Philippines has the fastest rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Western Pacific region, using WHO data. This prompted the WHO to clarify that they did not make the interpretation although it was based on information from their database.
Abeyasinghe echoed the sentiments of the Philippine government about not comparing countries.
“The question of the large number of cases in the Philippines has been highlighted in the press recently, but every country is not the same. And we need to recognize and acknowledge these differences,” he said.
He said one good thing about the Philippines is that it was able to keep its positivity rate or the proportion of people testing positive to around 7%.
“This is a positive fact,” he said.
The Johns Hopkins University (JHU) coronavirus resource center, in a post, explained that a lower positivity rate was good because “If a positivity rate is too high, that may indicate that the state is only testing the sickest patients who seek medical attention, and is not casting a wide enough net to know how much of the virus is spreading within its communities.”
However, Abeyasinghe cautioned the Philippines that it should also be expanding contact tracing and investigations.
“If we do testing only to identify cases and treat them, that’s not the full benefit a country receives,” he said.
“The full benefit received is when we use testing for identification of cases, investigation, contact tracing, isolation, suppression of further infection and management of cases.”
Groups have been calling on the Philippines to conduct mass testing for COVID-19. While the government has expanded its testing protocol, it has yet to reach its daily testing goals because of limited supplies and manpower in laboratories.