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Duque’s trail of COVID-19 gaffes revisited

Duque at the Senate's April 30 virtual meeting on COVID-19 where he announced the country was experiencing its second wave of infections
Duque at the Senate's April 30 virtual meeting on COVID-19 where he announced the country was experiencing its second wave of infections

Health Secretary Francisco Duque has stirred a hornet’s nest when he claimed at a Senate hearing Wednesday that the Philippines was going through its second wave or surge of COVID-19 cases.

Malacanang on Thursday maintained the country remains in its first wave of local transmissions after the health secretary came under fire from government officials and medical experts for his "confusing" statement.

Later in the day, Duque clarified before a House of Representatives hearing that his controversial statement was a “casual expression of epidemiologic fact” and the country was still in its "first major wave of sustained community transmission.”

Duque's statement on the supposed second wave of COVID-19 transmission is the latest in a string of inaccurate or misleading claims he has made since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country was reported in late January.

Drinking a lot of water

Besides frequent hand washing, social distancing and observing cough etiquette, Duque urged the public at a Jan. 30 press conference to drink a lot of water and keep the throat moist to keep the virus away:

And the hydration, drinking a lot of water because, as I have read yesterday in some articles, it appears that the virus will be difficult to inactivate in low temperatures and low humidity or dry atmosphere. So having said that, I strongly recommend as your doctor, you have to drink a lot of water, make sure your throat is moist so the virus doesn’t attach to it and gets eventually absorbed.

On drinking water, the World Health Organization has said staying hydrated by drinking water is important for overall health but does not prevent coronavirus infection.

WHO COVID-19 mythbuster on drinking water

On low temperatures and humidity levels, WHO says the virus can be transmitted in any climate because the normal human body remains at around 36.5 to 37 degrees Celsius.

WHO COVID-19 mythbuster on cold weather and snow
WHO COVID-19 mythbuster on areas with hot and humid climates

A recent report of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said a number of experimental studies point to a possible relationship between higher temperatures and humidity levels and reduced survival of the virus “in the laboratory.”

Eating malunggay

In the Jan. 30 briefing, Duque also recommended eating malunggay (moringa olefeira) as protection against COVID-19:

Drink a lot of fruit juices rich in Vitamin C, eat or put malunggay in many of your soup other food stuff.

While studies point to vitamin-rich malunggay as a promising antiviral agent, no research has been conducted on using it the novel coronavirus.

Low infection rate

Duque told an April 8 meeting of President Rodrigo Duterte with the Interagency Task Force for the Management Of Emerging Infectious Diseases the country had among the fewest infections in the world and was performing better than richer countries in curbing COVID-19:

Isa po tayo sa pinakamababa. At kung ihahambing po natin ang mga mayayamang bansa ay ‘di hamak na malayong-malayo po ang atin ranggo. Kung titingnan po natin ayan po malinaw naman po sa mga listahan na nakalagay po sa COVID world tracker ay isa po tayo sa may mababa na rate of infection (We have one of the lowest cases of infection. If we compare ourselves to rich countries, our ranks are far apart. The COVID world tracker clearly shows we are one of those with a low rate of infection).

A Rapper fact check traces the country’s low infection rate to the limited testing capacity at the time:

Due to limited testing capacity, the Philippines is only testing severe to critical cases of the coronavirus infection. The country has not yet done mass testing. The Philippines has been lagging behind other nations when it comes to testing capacities. Numbers as of April 4 show that the Philippines has been testing only 48 PUIs (persons under investigation) per million people. On March 20, it was only 12 PUIs per million.

Asymptomatic transmissions

At a Senate hearing on COVID-19 on May 20, Duque, citing WHO, said there is no evidence or report of asymptomatics or “silent spreaders” transmitting the virus:

Ang WHO, hanggang ngayon po, wala po silang ulat o ebidensyang nakakalap na magpapakita na nakakahawa ang mga asymptomatic (WHO up to now has not gathered reports or evidence that asymptomatics are contagious).

COVID-19 is mainly spread through respiratory droplets expelled by someone who is coughing or has other symptoms such as fever or tiredness. Asymptomatic transmission refers to transmission of the virus from a person who does not develop symptoms.

WHO has not ruled out asymptomatic transmissions, citing reports of silent spreaders. It said in its April 2 situation report:

There are few reports of laboratory-confirmed cases who are truly asymptomatic, and to date, there has been no documented asymptomatic transmission. This does not exclude the possibility that it may occur.

In a later advisory, WHO said:

Some reports have indicated that people with no symptoms can transmit the virus. It is not yet known how often it happens.

First and second waves

It was in the same Senate hearing that Duque declared that the country experienced its first wave of COVID-19 infections in January and was now in the middle of its second one:

Ang first wave natin happened sometime in January nung nagkaroon tayo ng tatlong kaso ng Chinese nationals from Wuhan…nagkaroon tayo ng tatlong imported cases. Kinikilalang first wave. Maliit lang na wave.
Pero ngayon nasa second wave tayo at ginagawa po natin ang lahat para ma-flatten yung epidemic curve at nang para sa ganoon magkaroon tayo ng sapat na panahon para mapaunlad at maitaas ang ating kakayahan sa sistemang kalusugan. Ramping up the health system’s capacity.
(Our first wave happened sometime in January when we had the three cases of Chinese nationals from Wuhan…We had three imported cases. That’s what we recognize as the first wave, a small wave.
But we are now in the second wave and doing everything within our means to flatten the epidemic curve so that we have enough time to ramp up the capacity of our health system).

Press Secretary Harry Roque on May 21 stressed the country is still in its first wave, which he said started in January with the three cases of COVID-positive Chinese tourists, dipped in February and spiked beginning March:

Kung titingnan ninyo po ang wave ng graph ng mga kaso dito sa Pilipinas, nagsimula po ang first wave natin nang dumating iyong tatlong Tsino na mayroon na pong kasong COVID-19. Pero hindi po community acquired iyan, ganoon pa man, diyan po nagsimula ang first wave.
Nagpapatuloy po ang first wave. Sa katunayan, nagpatuloy ito sa buwan ng Pebrero na mayroon tayong konting mga kaso na nai-report at lumobo sa buwan ng March. Patuloy pong lumobo iyan hanggang sa buwan ng Mayo kung saan nakikita nga natin ngayon sa graph na ito na bumababa na. Kaya nga kung sinasabi natin bagama’t hindi pa po fully flattened and curve, nagsisimula na po ang pag-flatten ng curve.
(If we look at the wave on the graph of cases in the Philippines, the first wave began with the arrival of the three Chinese who were COVID-19 positive. These were not community acquired. Even then, that’s when the first wave began.
The first wave is still ongoing. In fact, it continued into February when fewer cases were reported but ballooned in March. Cases continue to increase until May although the graph now shows a decline. So even if we haven’t fully flattened the curve, we've begun flattening it).

Later in the day, Duque backpedaled, saying the country is still in the first wave of what he called “sustained COVID-19 transmission.” He told a House committee on health hearing:

My statement was a casual expression of an epidemiologic fact because the first wave, which can, of course, be validated by Dr. John Wong, that indeed there was the first wave but very small which consisted of just three imported cases in January.
In the epidemiological sense, cases that show arise or a crest and a decrease or a trough constitute a wave, although very, very small wave. Then we had nothing for February, and then this was followed by a bigger wave which is now what we consider the first major wave of sustained community transmission
Either way, it can be easily construed that what where we are today is the first major wave of sustained transmission.

Wong is an epidemiologist with the IATF’s subtechnical working group on data analytics.

As of May 21, the Philippines recorded a total of 13,434 confirmed COVID-19 infections, 846 deaths and 3,000 cases. It has 9,588 cases.


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