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COVID-19 WATCH

‘Balik Probinsya’ can break cycle of poverty

TDT

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Life may be kinder to these fire victims, visited by Sen. Bong Go last year, when they restart life in the provinces under the "Balik Probinsya" program. (SGB Facebook)

As the government continues to combat the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak, the poorest sectors of society remain the hardest hit.

Even if Metro Manila transitions to general community quarantine by Saturday, the daily struggles of the urban poor, composed mostly of informal settlers, are the same: Lack of decent and safe housing, low-paying jobs, lack of livelihood opportunities and the constant threat of criminal elements lurking in busy streets.

Their problems may even worsen after more than eight weeks of inactivity.

Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go thus called on government agencies, particularly the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor, and Department of Environment and Natural Resources, to facilitate a comprehensive assessment of the population and situation of informal settlers, especially those in Metro Manila, and provide better opportunities for starting anew after the COVID-19 crisis.

“Sa patuloy na laban natin para masugpo ang COVID-19 sa bansa, kailangan din natin mabigyan ng bagong pag-asa ang ating urban poor na pinaka-apektado ng krisis. Karamihan po sa mga ito ay galing probinsya at gusto na pong umuwi kung mabibigyan sila ng oportunidad na magkaroon ng mas maayos na buhay,” Go said.

If the urban poor are provided with better opportunities in the countryside, they will be motivated to relocate back to their home provinces which would help solve problems related to congestion, poor quality of life, inefficiencies in the delivery of services and environmental degradation, Go noted.

“Ang pangunahing layunin natin ay mabigyan sila ng mga oportunidad para umasenso, tulad ng maayos na trabaho, edukasyon, pabahay at suporta mula sa local government para makaahon sila sa kahirapan kung piliin nilang bumalik sa kanilang mga probinsya,” he added.

Go, also the chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Demography, stressed the need to rapidly assess the situation of informal settlers as they should be the priority target beneficiaries of the Balik Probinsya program.

As of Thursday, some 5,000 Filipinos have already registered for the program.

“Napakahirap maging mahirap, walang bahay at walang maayos na trabaho sa Kamaynilaan. Ipinakita rin ng krisis na dulot ng COVID-19 na mas mahirap pa ang buhay ng mga informal settlers na manatili sa syudad,” the senator explained.

“Isa sa limang tao sa Metro Manila ay informal settler. Kapag pumupunta ako sa mga fire visits sa NCR, napapansin kong nasa informal settlements nangyayari ang mga insidenteng ito dahil ang mga bahay ay dikit-dikit at gawa sa combustible na mga materyales.”

To encourage city dwellers to return to their provinces, Go said the government is crafting a long-term plan to create economic opportunities in the countryside and boost regional development to help returning individuals and families to start their life anew.

“We should learn from the COVID-19 experience and break that vicious chain of poverty. We should provide them the needed assistance to go back to the provinces and give hope for a better future for their children and their children’s children,” he added.

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COVID-19 WATCH

J&J vaccine trial nears late stage

Agence France-Presse

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WASHINGTON (AFP) — Johnson & Johnson said Wednesday it was entering the final Phase 3 stage of its Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial following positive results in earlier stages.

The trial will seek to enroll up to 60,000 volunteers across more than 200 sites in the US and around the world, the company and the US National Institutes for Health (NIH), which is providing funding, said.

With the move, J&J becomes the tenth maker globally to conduct a Phase 3 trial against Covid-19, and the fourth in the US.

The company, which is developing the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis through its subsidiary Janssen, said it anticipated the drug would be ready for emergency approval by early 2021 if proven safe and effective.

“As COVID-19 continues to impact the daily lives of people around the world, our goal remains the same — leveraging the global reach and scientific innovation of our company to help bring an end to this pandemic,” said Alex Gorsky, the company’s chairman and CEO.

Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, added: “Four COVID-19 vaccine candidates are in Phase 3 clinical testing in the United States just over eight months after SARS-CoV-2 was identified.”

“This is an unprecedented feat for the scientific community made possible by decades of progress in vaccine technology and a coordinated, strategic approach across government, industry and academia.”

The US has given J&J about $1.45 billion in funding under Operation Warp Speed.

The vaccine is based on a single dose of a cold-causing adenovirus, modified so that it can no longer replicate, combined with a part of the new coronavirus called the spike protein that it uses to invade human cells.

J&J used the same technology in its Ebola vaccine which received marketing approval from the European Commission in July.

The company said it was poised to imminently publish the results from an earlier stage of the trial on a medical preprint site.

Pre-clinical testing on rhesus macaque monkeys that were published in the journal Nature showed it provided complete or near-complete protection against virus infection in the lungs and nose.

Like several other Phase 3 trials that are underway, its primary objective is to test whether the vaccine can prevent symptomatic Covid-19.

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Surge in critical cases probed

Gabbie Parlade

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The Department of Health (DoH) on Thursday disclosed that it will be looking into the sudden increase in the number of reported critical cases in the country.

This came after a tallied surge in percentage was noticed from initially being at 0.3 percent to rising into around three percent in the past weeks.

Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega said they were also surprised by the growth of cases but noted that as of now investigation on the matter is still ongoing.

He said that all data especially from local government units are being reviewed as critical care units in Metro Manila are seen to be at a stabilized level.

“We’re validating that now in all of our critical care units, intensive care units because here in Metro Manila as you can see there is adequate critical care beds and it’s not yet strained so we’re also trying to find out what were the reasons behind the increase of the percentage point, he said in a briefing.

“In fact, our regional directors and surveillance are looking at the number of critical patients in private and public hospitals to validate,” he added.

But Vega assured that the increase is now cause for alarm as all operations are now focused at making sure that the national health system will not be overwhelmed.

As of the current statistics from the DoH, the critical care utilization rate nationwide lies between 51 percent to 43 percent in the beds dedicated for isolation, ward, and intensive care units while the use of ventilators is only at 26 percent.

On the other hand, Metro Manila — the epicenter of the virus in the country — has an occupancy rate in its critical units beds ranging from 65 percent to 54 percent as 39 percent of the ventilators are utilized.

Vega also stressed that ideally if more relaxed protocols under the modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) will be pushed, the critical care utilization rate should be at least lower than 60 percent.

This is to make sure that the health system will be able to accommodate patients should there be a surge of cases.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Philippines has tallied over 294,000 cases of COVID-19 where Metro Manila at 156,889 still has the highest number of infections among regions.

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EV has new positives

Elmer Recuerdo

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PALO, Leyte — Coronavirus cases breached the 100-barrier for the first time this month in Eastern Visayas (EV) on Wednesday despite the slight decrease recorded in key cities of the region.

The Department of Health (DoH) regional office reported 103 new cases as the region transitions into a new quarantine status in less than a week.

The 103 positive cases were out of the 1,106 total tests done in Eastern Visayas Regional COVID-19 Testing Center and Divine Word Hospital Virology Laboratory.

While cases are gradually going down in key cities like Tacloban, Catbalogan and Calbayog, a few towns in Leyte and Samar showed double digit figures.

Of the new cases, the town of Barugo, Leyte registered the most number with 25. The town of Jiabong, Samar had 11 new cases while Babatngon, Leyte had 10. The cities of Tacloban, Catbalogan and Calbayog also had double digit cases.

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has placed Eastern Visayas under modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) until 30 September except for Tacloban City which is on stricter general community quarantine.

DoH regional director Minerva Molon said the regional IATF has not yet received any recommendations from the local government units (LGU) for a change of quarantine status after 30 September.

“Some areas where we have had zero active cases for a long time can already transition to the new normal, if they wish to, so that they can have their local economy going,” she said.

Molon said the regional IATF only relies from the feedback of the LGU on the quarantine status that it can recommend to the national IATF. She said the mayors are more knowledgeable of the condition on the ground based on the trend of infection and their capability.

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208-kg. man survives coronavirus

Agence France-Presse

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Mexican Juan Pedro Franco weighs 595 kilograms when this photo was taken on 17 February 2018. He has since lost 250 kilograms and survived a bout with the coronavirus. ULISES RUIZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MEXICO CITY, Mexico (AFP) — A Mexican who was once the world’s heaviest man has beaten the coronavirus, helped — he believes — by several years of dieting, exercise and stomach-reduction surgery that saw him shed hundreds of kilos.

Juan Pedro Franco used to weigh 595 kilos (1,310 pounds) — more than the average male polar bear and enough to be certified by Guinness World Records in 2017.

The 36-year-old now weighs around 208 kilos, but his history of diabetes, high blood pressure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease made his battle against the virus particularly grueling.

“It’s a very aggressive disease. I had a headache, body ache, breathing difficulty, a fever. I was a very high-risk person,” Franco told AFP from his home in the central state of Aguascalientes.

Mexico, which has the world’s fourth-highest Covid-19 death toll, has the highest obesity rate on the planet among children and the second-highest among adults.

A quarter of the more than 74,000 Mexicans who have died after catching the virus were overweight.

Many of the dead suffered from at least one underlying condition such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity, often associated with a poor diet and lack of exercise.

“Patients who are diabetic, have hypertension and heart disease are more susceptible to serious complications” from the virus, said Jose Antonio Castaneda, the doctor who headed the team that treated Franco’s obesity.

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China opens door

Agence France-Presse

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BEIJING, China (AFP) — China on Wednesday eased entry restrictions for foreigners holding certain residence permits, an incremental step towards reopening borders closed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The country has gradually allowed more foreigners to enter after an abrupt ban on all foreign nationals, including those with Chinese work or residence permits, announced in March to fight the pandemic.

Foreigners who have residence permits tied to employment, as well as permits for two types of family reunions may now re-enter the country without applying for new documents, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.

But all entrants “must strictly abide by China’s anti-epidemic management regulations,” it said.

That means being subject to COVID-19 tests and a 14-day quarantine.

People keen to return will also need to find a plane ticket, after Beijing ordered a drastic reduction in international flights at the end of March, and prices soared.

In August, China allowed foreign nationals from 36 European countries to re-apply for visas without a previously required and rarely issued invitation letter.

Before that, China opened its borders to a slow stream of skilled foreign workers under special fast-track agreements signed with a small number of countries.

China has largely controlled the spread of the virus, which first emerged in the central city of Wuhan late last year.

Despite several small outbreaks during the summer, most cases reported in the country in recent weeks have been travellers entering from abroad.

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UN warns against misinformation

Agence France-Presse

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GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) — All countries must develop plans to battle sometimes deadly misinformation around the coronavirus and potential vaccines, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

“Covid-19 is not just a public health emergency, it is a communications emergency too,” UN chief Antonio Guterres told a virtual event held in connection with the UN General Assembly, as the organisation and several of its agencies launched an appeal to battle misinformation.

They also called on the media and social media platforms to do more to counter the spread of disinformation and to help spread accurate information.

Experts have been warning for months of a deluge of information including widespread false claims that can pose a serious threat to public health.

“Just as Covid-19 has spread around the world, so too have rumors, untruths and disinformation,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the event.

“Far too many people have done themselves harm based on falsehoods, self-medicating with toxic chemicals or dangerous medications. Others have not taken the precautions they should have.”

He said these rumours and falsehoods affected trust in institutions and health systems, saying: “Everything that undermines that puts lives at risk.”

Experts at the event stressed the need to dramatically rethink how to communicate science-based findings to promote accurate data over misinformation.

Humans have always peddled in rumors, said Claire Wardle of First Draft, a group focused on responsible reporting, but those rumours have been “super-charged” because of the Internet.

She said all actors who give out information to the public needed to do more than just provide facts and figures.

She suggested even adopting some of the strategies of the so-called anti-vax movement, which has increasingly been stoking fears about the coronavirus vaccines in development.

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EU urges new measures to head off virus second wave

Agence France-Presse

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The European Commission urged EU members states Thursday to better explain and enforce social distancing and hygiene rules to halt a dangerous new wave of coronavirus infections.

Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “In some member states, the situation is now even worse than during the peak in March. This is a real cause for concern.

“All member states need to roll out measures immediately and at the right time at the very first sign of potential new outbreaks.”

Europe has now had more than five million coronavirus cases, and several countries have begun reimposing local lockdown rules to head off a return to uncontrolled spread.

The death rate has not returned to the levels seen earlier this year, but cases of new infections are soaring once again in many areas.

But Kyriakides, whose office has sought to coordinate the response across the 27 member states, warned that some areas had clearly begun to lift restrictions too soon.

“What this means, to be very clear, is that the control measures taken have simply not being effective enough or not being enforced or followed as they should have been,” she said.

“We cannot lower our guard. This crisis is not behind us. Moreover, winter is the time of the year for more respiratory illnesses, including seasonal influenza.”

And she warned: “Today we’re here to call on everyone to act decisively… it might be our last chance to prevent a repeat of last spring.”

Kyriakides said that member state governments would have to fight misinformation about the virus and reach out to young people to head off protests and conspiracy theories.

And she warned they will have to act quickly to prevent a need for a return to generalized lockdowns, which she said would hurt the economy, education, and the mental health of the public.

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DoH shrugs off criticisms

Whatever comments we receive, we will continue to work in combating against this disease and in caring for the whole population.

Gabbie Parlade

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The Department of Health (DoH) said it will continue to work despite mounting criticisms over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the DoH will carry on with its initiative to implement its ‘whole of society approach’ in containing the spread of the coronavirus disease.

“We are doing a whole-of-nation, whole-of-society approach to this response that we have for COVID-19. Whatever comments we receive, we will continue to work in combating against this disease and in caring for the whole population,” she told reporters.

This came after a recent study by one of the world’s leading medical journals, the Lancet, ranked the Philippines in 66th spot among the 91 countries based on the rate of the virus’ reproduction since August.

It stated that one of the factors behind the failure in response which countries including the Philippines have experienced was due to the ‘medical populism’ brought by governing political leaders.

They explicitly mentioned President Rodrigo Duterte along with United States President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to be included in this category.

As explained, the term describes leaders as “simplifying the pandemic by downplaying its impacts or touting easy solutions or treatments, spectacularizing their responses to crisis, forging divisions between the ‘people’ and dangerous ‘others’, and making medical knowledge claims to support the above.”

The Lancet said that it has led to some measures as being politicized while others have been prone to breeding misinformation.

“We call on all nations to combat the rampant rumor-mongering and misinformation that abounds on COVID-19, and we call especially on leaders to desist in expressing personal viewpoints that are at odds with the scientific and public health experts of their nations,” they stated.

At present, the Philippines has reported over 291,000 cases of COVID-19, ranking 21st worldwide as shown in the data by Johns Hopkins University.

The US still tops the record at 6.8 million infected individuals with the global tally now reaching over 31 million.

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‘Lifting of lockdowns dangerous’

Elmer N. Manuel @tribunephl_lmer

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The head of adult infectious disease at the San Lazaro Hospital on Wednesday warned against calls for the lifting of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdowns across the country as he urged the public to take preventive health measures.

This comes after Concerned Doctors and Citizens of the Philippines (CDC-PH) last week launched the #FlattenTheFear campaign, which urges government to end lockdowns and promote intake of proper nutrition to boost one’s immune system.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Rontgene Solante stressed that lifting of virus restrictions should only be implemented once there is a “significant drop” in COVID-19 cases.

“It’s really dangerous to look at it that when you lift the lockdown and take vitamins, prophylaxis. You have that false belief that when you’re taking these drugs you’ll have less harm against the virus,” said Solante in a television interview.

“It’s very dangerous. Premature lifting of the lockdown and taking the prophylaxis, you are facing two very dangerous interventions here that has not been proven at this point when our cases are still ongoing,” he added.

Solante also noted that while there is “nothing wrong” with taking vitamins and getting exercise to boost one’s immune system, the public should still maximize and keep the protocol, wear masks, face shield and keep distance.

He also said hydroxychloroquine has not been proven effective both as treatment or prophylaxis (preventive measure) against COVID-19, contrary to the doctors’ group recommendation.

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