By Vann Marlo M. Villegas and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporters

THE GOVERNMENT should keep the lockdown level in Metro Manila and nearby provinces for at least a week more after April 30 to help contain a fresh surge in coronavirus infections, according to researchers from the country’s premier university.

In a report, the OCTA Research Group from the University of the Philippines said easing COVID-19 cases in the capital region and the provinces of Bulacan, Laguna, Rizal and Cavite was uneven.

“We urge the National Government to extend the modified enhanced community quarantine over the National Capital Region (NCR) Plus bubble for at least one more week,” it said. “One more will allow the ongoing decrease in daily case numbers to stabilize.”

A premature easing of the lockdown could trigger spikes in some local governments that could overflow to neighboring cities, the group said. The government should boost testing, contact-tracing and quarantines, it added.

“Once the NCR Plus bubble is moved from a modified enhanced community quarantine to a general community quarantine, we can expect viral transmissions to increase as people begin to interact with each other again,” it added.

The extension would let the government improve its contact-tracing capacity and build new isolation and quarantine facilities, it said.

Hospital capacity in Metro Manila was at a critical level despite decreasing daily tallies, OCTA said.

Forty-three hospitals and infirmaries in the metro were full, while the capacity of 59 of 177 facilities were still above critical risk, it pointed out, citing data from the Department of Health (DoH).

Hospital COVID-19 bed occupancy would not drop to pre-surge numbers until sometime in June at the current reproduction rate of 0.9, meaning an infected person can infect one more.

Once the rate drops to 0.8, hospital occupancy could drop to pre-surge levels by the third week of May, OCTA said.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire on Monday backed the extension of the modified strict lockdown to contain the pandemic.

This would also help decongest the country’s health system, which is near its breaking point, she told a televised news briefing.

DoH reported 7,204 coronavirus infections on Tuesday, bringing the total to 1.01 million.

The death toll rose by 63 to 16,916, while recoveries increased by 10,109 to 925,027, it said in a bulletin.

There were 71,675 active cases, 1.1% of which were critical, 95.2% were mild, 1.5% did not show symptoms, 1.3% were severe and 0.9% were moderate.

The agency said 14 duplicates had been removed from the tally, eight of which were tagged as recoveries. Twenty-six recoveries were reclassified as deaths.

Two laboratories were closed on April 25, while 22 failed to submit data.

About 10.9 million Filipinos have been tested for the coronavirus as of April 25, according to DoH’s tracker website.

The coronavirus has sickened about 148.5 million and killed 3.1 million people worldwide, according to the Worldometers website, citing various sources including data from the World Health Organization.

About 126.2 million people have recovered, it said.

Meanwhile, the Philippines imposed a 16-day travel ban starting April 29 on India, which has ordered its armed forces to help tackle surging coronavirus infections that were overwhelming hospitals.

“Travelers coming from India and those with travel history to India within the last 14 days preceding arrival shall be prohibited from entering the Philippines beginning April 29 until May 14,” presidential spokesman Herminio L. Roque, Jr. said in a statement.

Passengers already in transit from India and all those who have been to the country in the past 14 days or who arrive before April 29 must get quarantined and tested before entering Manila.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. earlier asked an inter-agency task force to impose the travel ban. 

“I have suggested that a travel ban be imposed on all our good friends in the entire Indian subcontinent,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

“It’s not personal,” he said. “It’s for everyone’s safety for now. We’ll be able to be together again and we can recall the time when we had to be apart to live.”

Mr. Locsin said the idea came from the task force, which had him on possible “foreign policy implications.”

“I said there is none, for we mean it with only the best intentions for everyone’s safety and with an abiding affection and admiration for India, the pharmacy of the world,” he said.

Experts have said new variants including a “double mutant” first detected in India had caused the spike in cases there, Reuters reported last week.

India has posted 17.6 million coronavirus infections and about 198,000 deaths, with 14.6 million recoveries, according to the Worldometers website.

In Japan, a third state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka and two other prefectures started on Sunday, affecting nearly a quarter of the population as the country tries to fight a surge in coronavirus cases.