Cautionary truths on the “decline” of COVID numbers

AT THE risk of being a spoil sport, CMFR is asking the media to provide the necessary context to the government’s determination to relax COVID restrictions. 

METRO MANILA was placed in Alert Level 3 beginning October 16, Saturday, by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF). The IATF based its decision on the supposed a drop in the number of new COVID-19 cases and claimed that the healthcare system was no longer strained. It also declared that the situation is “improving,” and prompting them to relax restrictions on mobility and to allow more business establishments to open.

As they have done in the past, medical groups and professionals were quick to express their doubts about the wisdom of the IATF decision. They expressed  concerns that the task force seems to be deliberately  ignoring. 

Media should recall that in 2020 these medical professionals  had  called for changes in the system which turned out to be correct and appropriate in addressing the pandemic. But the TV newscasts have tended to present their views as mere reactions to  government policies, and thus missing the opportunity to expand the discussion with interpretation and analysis. 

It has taken public affairs programs to follow through these crucial counter-narratives by providing more discussion of significant points of information and insight. 

Alternative views and critical voices must be integrated into coverage at every opportunity. The public must not be fed only the government’s perspective in dealing with potential perils, including another deadly surge.

Interpreting COVID-data 

On the surface, the easing of restrictions seems to be justified. On October 4, the Department of Health (DOH) said in a briefing that it would check whether the decline in new cases was “artificial” and if the numbers correctly reflect the situation on the ground. On October 9, the DOH estimated that new daily cases in Metro Manila were expected to go down to “around 1,100 per day” by Nov. 15 and they hoped that “by Christmastime, we will have looser community quarantine classifications and restrictions.”

Dr. Jomar Rabajante of the UP Pandemic Response Team (PRT) was interviewed in ABS-CBN  TeleRadyo’s Sakto last October 22. He affirmed that it was fair to say that both the number of cases and hospitalization rates were declining. He also allayed doubts regarding the data, saying that the discrepancy between hospitalization rates and the reported cases of COVID is not out of proportion, so the numbers showing the decline offer a reliable enough picture.

Decline in cases subject to interpretation 

However, Dr. Rabajante also observed that the actual numbers are still very high, and even higher than pre-Delta levels in July. He added that there was also the possibility of underreporting, considering that positive antigen test results might not be reflected immediately, or not  at all, in the data released to the public. 

Nonetheless, Dr. Rabajante said the downward trend is similar to that experienced by countries such as India, where cases surged due to the Delta variant. He said the positivity rate can be further decreased by increasing testing, but this has to go hand-in-hand with contact tracing and immediate isolation, measures that the government has failed to do systematically and consistently. 

Unfortunately, media have also consistently failed to notice these critical lapses in the government’s response. 

Flagging areas of critical concern 

Health advocate Dr. Tony Leachon had a similar suggestion in understanding the decrease in COVID cases. Speaking in TeleRadyo Balita on October 16, he cited Bloomberg’s criteria for their Resilience Ranking to reopening economies, among them positivity rates and vaccination rates. 

A safe reopening of the economy, said Dr. leachon, must be based on lower positivity rates and more vaccinations. This data must be readily available to the public so it can make informed decisions about how to respond to government’s decisions. Without access to data and other interventions, any  reopening of the economy would be  fraught with the danger of another surge. 


In a later interview in CNN Philippines’ The Source on October 22, Leachon said the national government’s new target of 1.5 million jabs  daily was a “stretch,” as the country had  averaged only more than 400,000 in the past few days. He also cited the lack of cold chain facilities which are required to assure the quality of vaccine supplies, and noted as well the delays in their distribution to the provinces.

Hospital capacity 

The media should also  vigilantly cover other concerns linked to the fight against COVID-19. 

Dr. Maricar Limpin, president of the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP), told Teleradyo Balita on October 17 that hospitalizations for non-COVID illnesses tend to increase at this time of the year. She added that non-COVID patients have had to postpone medical consultations, check-ups and prescribed operations these past months because hospitals were packed with COVID-19 patients. Should a surge happen again, it would not be easy to re-purpose non-COVID wards to accommodate an overflow of COVID patients. 

 Limpin reminded viewers that the welfare of healthcare workers remains a central concern; and that doctors and nurses are not immune to COVID-19 and have to go through periods of quarantine when infected. She also expected the lack of medical doctors to undertake holiday shifts as Metro Manila postponed the holding of licensure exams for physicians in September, thus holding up the entry of new doctors into active practice. 

This might mean a different kind of holiday fatigue for healthcare workers. “Marami pa ring COVID-19 cases, puno ang ICU pati ang Emergency Department… Pero hindi na siya talaga tulad ng dati. Mas mabilis na kami makakapag-admit. Siguro, within the day, naa-admit na namin ‘yung kailangang iadmit na COVID-19 cases.” (“There are still plenty of COVID-19 cases. The ICU is full, as well as the Emergency Department. But it’s not like before. We can admit patients quicker now. Maybe, within the day, we are able to admit COVID-19 cases that need to be admitted.”)

She stated clearly that physicians and nurses are still in a state of crisis. “‘Nakakahinga na ba kami?’ Hindi pa ho kami nakakahinga hanggang sa ngayon,” she said. (“But can we say that we can breathe easier now? No, we still can’t breathe easier now.”)

Addressing a large policy question, Limpin noted how the medical community continues to lose nurses to active foreign recruitment especially in the UK and the US. Government should consider as a priority  significantly raising nurses’ basic pay to encourage them to stay in the country. 

Limpin and Leachon expressed in their separate interviews the need for the constant review of Alert Levels so as to  align  and implement them in a more integrated manner. They questioned the opening of cinemas as well. There needs to be an overall messaging that is sensitive to the situation and immediately responsive to everyone’s needs.

Table 1. Summary suggestions regarding the minimum health protocols

Mask-wearingClear, constant reminders; improve information campaigns.
Physical distancingIncrease from only 1-meter spacing to 2-meter spacing.
Indoor holding capacitiesMore realistic percentages which factor in ventilation and movement

Despite the promising figures and the government’s anticipation of a “better Christmas,” the public must bear in mind that we are not out of the woods yet. Media should temper the optimistic messaging, and check the realities on the ground so public can continue to protect themselves as necessary in the weeks and months to come.