HEALTH experts allayed fears of a spread of the more infectious variant of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) after 16 new cases were reported in the northern part of the country.
This comes as Malacañang assured the public that the government has enough testing facilities to screen travelers arriving from countries with confirmed cases of the variant that was discovered in the United Kingdom called B117.
Twelve of the 16 cases, according to the Department of Health (DoH), were reported in Bontoc, Mountain Province; two from returning overseas Filipinos from Lebanon; and locally-acquired cases in La Trinidad, Benguet and Calamba City, Laguna, where both patients have no known travel histories.
Of the 16 cases, three have recovered. The 13 are active, three of whom are asymptomatic and 10 are experiencing mild symptoms.
Dr. Alethea de Guzman of the DoH Epidemiology Bureau said 11 of the 12 cases in Bontoc came from one village. Three of the infected are below 18 years old, with the youngest at five, while three others are above 60 years old.
De Guzman said the DoH was looking into the 203 percent increase in the number of positive cases in the town in the past two weeks.
The two returning overseas Filipinos, who tested positive for the new strain, arrived via Philippine Airlines Flight 8661 on December 29 from Lebanon, one of the countries included in the government’s travel ban.
They have been identified as a 64-year-old female, whose address is in Jaro, Iloilo and who was isolated in San Juan; and a 47-year-old female, who was listed as a resident of Binangonan, Rizal and was quarantined at the New Clark City Isolation Center. They were both released from isolation on January 9 and 13, respectively.
De Guzman said the DoH was now verifying the addresses of the two individuals to check on their health status.
The last two were locals with no contact to any confirmed case or of having traveled outside the country.
The first, identified as a 22-year-old male from La Trinidad, Benguet who was swabbed on January 7, is currently in isolation in a Temporary Treatment and Isolation Facility there.
The second, a 23-year-old male from Calamba City, Laguna who was swabbed on December 10, completed his isolation and was discharged on January 16.
Dr. Ruby Constantino, director of the DoH Center for Health Development-Cordillera, said she has asked the mayor of Bontoc to extend the lockdown to contain the transmission, and called on the national government to add more tracers in the province.
Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, the contact tracing czar, said stricter border controls would be enforced in Benguet.
He and Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd criticized some local government officials for downplaying contact tracing and testing and using “superficial methods” to show that they were effectively managing their Covid-19 cases, especially now that elections are just around the corner.
Dr. Celia Carlos, director of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, said, however, that it was “too premature” to determine if the locally-acquired cases in Laguna and Benguet as well as the cluster of cases in Bontoc were community transmissions.
Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvana, a member of the DoH Technical Advisory Group (DoH-TAG), and Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases-Sub-Technical Working Group on new variants, said the Calamba case, which was detected on December 10, was among the pool of samples sequenced in October, November and December as part of genomic biosurveillance.
He said the Bontoc cluster was separate from the index case in Dubai on January 13 and Lebanon.
He added that the detection of the genome sequence in the Calamba case more than a month after it was discovered was an improvement in the country’s biosurveillance efforts, as it was able to determine the variant faster than the United Kingdom, which discovered the strain three months after the first infection was reported.
Duque said the discovery of the cases was proof that the country’s biosurveillance efforts are working.
Salvana and fellow TAG member, Dr. Marissa Alejandria, also dismissed fears that the new variant was 30-percent deadlier than the original Covid-19.
Enough testing facilities
Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr., in a statement, assured that the government would find “ways and means to have enough testing facilities” after the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) resolved that incoming passengers “shall be tested upon arrival and shall be quarantined until the result of the subsequent test administered on the fifth day is released.”
The Philippines, so far, has 193 testing laboratories.
More than 7 million people have been tested with a cumulative positivity rate of 8.1 percent.
To date, the country recorded 509,887 Covid-19 cases, with 467,720 recoveries and 10,136 deaths.
Roque announced on Friday that the mandatory completion of the 14-day facility-based quarantine for inbound passengers would be replaced with testing them upon arrival then another test during their fifth day of quarantine based on the IATF Resolution 95 that was approved on Thursday.
With reports from CATHERINE S. VALENTE