By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

CORONAVIRUS cases in the Philippine capital and nearby cities have been rising faster, hitting levels last seen in July, according to a group of researchers.

There had been 1,025 infections daily in the capital region in the past seven days, 42% higher than a week earlier and more than double the number two weeks ago, the OCTA Research Group from the University of the Philippines said on Sunday.

The number could still go up this month.

“Based on the current reproduction number, the National Capital Region (NCR) is projected to have 2,000 new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases per day by March 21 and 3,000 new cases per day by March 31, while the country is projected to have 5,000 to 6,000 new cases per day by the end of March,” the researchers aid.

The virus reproduction rate in Metro Manila during the period was 1.66, which means an infected person can spread the disease to more than one person.

“The last time the region had seen this rate of increase was in July 2020,” the researchers said.

They noted a surge in COVID-19 cases in Metro Manila on March 6, when the Department of Health reported (DoH) 1,464 new infections. This could be due to the spread of coronavirus variants that are more contagious, they said.

OCTA Research said the infection surge in Metro Manila could undermine the government’s vaccination program.

“The original strain does not spread this quickly considering the health guidelines in place,” it said.

The group said the percentage of those infected increased to an average of 8% the past seven days. The World Health Organization has recommended that the rate be maintained below 5%.

DoH reported 3,276 coronavirus infections on Sunday, bringing the total to 594,412. The death toll rose by 51 to 12,516, while recoveries increased by 10,516 to 545, 853, it said in a bulletin.

There were 36,043 active cases, 2.2% of which were critical, 90.6% were mild, 4.2% did not show symptoms, 2.1% were severe and 0.91% were moderate.

DOH said two duplicates had been removed from the tally, while 13 recoveries were reclassified as deaths. Seven laboratories failed to submit data on Feb. 16.

OCTA Research said Pasay, Makati, Malabon and Navotas were high-risk areas. Pasay had the highest daily attack rate at 30 for 100,000 people.

Makati City had used 80% of its hospital beds, while Quezon City, Taguig, Malabon, Muntinlupa and Pateros had used more than 60%, OCTA said. Las Piñas and Mandaluyong exceeded 70%.

Metro Manila’s overall hospital bed occupancy was 44% 53% for its intensive care units. Only Valenzuela showed a decline in infections from Feb. 28 to March 6, it said.

Cebu City, Lapu-Lapu, Mandaue and Davao City were on a downward trend. Baguio City, on the other hand, faces a surge in infections.

Meanwhile, Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez on Sunday rejected calls for Metro Manila to return to a stricter lockdown amid a surge in infections.

The government should impose localized lockdowns, he told reporters in a Viber group message, adding that the country “cannot afford to go back to a wide lockdown.”

Health department data showed new COVID-19 cases reached 3,439 on Saturday, the highest since Oct. 12.

The government has allowed more businesses to operate in areas under a general quarantine including cinemas, arcades and tourist attractions after economic managers and business groups sought the easing to aid economic recovery.

The Trade department would increase monitoring in workplaces to check for compliance with public health rules, Mr. Lopez said.

Health protocols in communities and public areas should be strictly enforced, he said, adding that private gatherings should be avoided. Workplace protocols include wearing of face masks, physical distancing and sanitation.

DoH on Friday reported 52 more infections involving the more infectious South African variant, bringing the total to 58.

Also on Sunday, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) said mayors in the region were expected to pass a resolution on Monday seeking to pause cinema operations due to a spike in coronavirus infections.

MMDA Chair Benjamin de Castro Abalos, Jr. said the mayors agreed at the weekend to shut down cinemas after a four-hour meeting with DoH officials and medical experts.

The ban may last three to four weeks, he said by telephone. “They will have to observe first the progression of the case. We have to observe the upsurge first.”

He said the presence of two coronavirus variants in the capital region had forced them to close down cinemas.

The DOH has said both the COVID-19 variants from the UK and South Africa are more contagious. The South African variant also can vaccine efficacy.

In a related development, Moderna, Inc. on Sunday said it had signed a supply agreement with the Philippine government for 13 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine.

Under the terms, deliveries will start in mid-2021 the company said in a statement. Moderna’s vaccine is not yet approved for use in the Philippines, and it said it would work with regulators to pursue approvals before distribution.

It said it expects a separate agreement with the government and private sector for the supply of seven million more doses.

“We remain committed to making our vaccine available on every continent to help end this global pandemic,” Moderna Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Bancel said in the statement. — with Norman P. Aquino