Following the Department of Transportation (DOTr) recommendation being approved by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), physical distancing in public transportation started to be reduced on September 14 that would result to increased passenger capacity and was seen to be part of government steps to “reopening of economy.”

IATF approved the proposal pushed by the Economic Development Cluster and the DOTr to increase ridership in public transportation by optimizing or reducing the physical distance between commuters.

The DOTr also reminded in its Facebook page on September 13 that ‘reduced physical distancing’ from 1 meter (m) to 0.75 would be implemented starting September 14. By September 28, physical distancing would be further reduced to 0.5 meter, and then by October 12 to 0.3 meter.

No research or evidence of effectiveness of less than 1 meter?

Former IATF consultant Dr. Tony Leachon said “there is no evidence that a distance of less than one meter in a public transport vehicle can help prevent the transmission of the virus.”

Meanwhile, disaster scientist and head of Project NOAH Dr. Mahar Lagmay shared details from the talk of Healthcare Professionals Alliance for COVID-19 (HPAAC) member Dr. Antonio Dans in the National Health Research Forum for Action on the effectiveness of physical distancing and mass gatherings in this time of pandemic.

Effective interventions for preventing transmission showed that in indoor settings, 99% reduction can only be achieved through 4m distancing+wearing of masks or 2m distancing+wearing of face masks+face shields. In outdoor settings, 99% reduction can be achieved with distancing, masks and face shields.

Non-medical equipment are not powerful enough alone, but must be combined with distancing especially in indoor settings to compensate for lack of ventilation.

The HPAAC, the largest group of health workers and included medical groups that called for a “timeout” for the government to re-calibrate its COVID-19 response, also disagreed with reducing the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of 1 meter minimum physical distancing.

Infectious diseases expert Dr. Edsel Salvaña said the government’s move to ease physical distancing in public transport is “problematic.”

“If there is a single COVID-19 positive person in the transport, anyone less than one meter from him/her after 15 minutes becomes a close contact who will need to quarantine and can potentially spread disease,” he said on his Facebook page on Sunday.

In the Presidential Communications Operations Office ”Laging Handa” virtual briefing on September 14, DOTr Undersecretary Artemio Tuazon Jr. opposed views that the policy is not backed by research or science and cited studies from experts that even with a reduced distancing between passengers, transmission rate can still be lowered with strict enforcement of health protocols.

The DOTr official cited the study of International Union of Railways among its member countries that shows that the same time physical distancing was reduced, cases were also decreasing showing that public transport, particularly the train system, is not a “vector of transmission” of COVID-19.

According to Tuazon, the study also revealed that among these countries, only the Philippines is enforcing the one-meter distancing between passengers in public transport.

What DOH has to say

In the Department of Health (DOH) statement on the DOTr’s move to reduce physical distancing, the DOH recognized the DOTr as the “lead agency responsible for issuing and enforcing transport guidelines to ensure that the public’s health and safety shall not be compromised.”

“If possible, choose to participate in activities or use transport options that can afford at least 1-meter distancing,” the DOH said.

In the past, however, the government responded to public criticisms of President Rodrigo Duterte’s military-filled cabinet and COVID-19 pandemic response team that DOH Sec. Francisco Duque III sits as chair of IATF, the policy-making body of government COVID-19 response.

Because of this, many people expected the DOH to have a “more definite” stand on the ‘reduced physical distancing policy’ of DOTr.

Leachon said the DOH’s statement on reduced physical distancing in public transport is “weak , confusing and arbitrary and sends wrong and mixed messages to the community.”

No consultation cry mayors, while other top government officials disagree

The 17 Metro Manila mayors, in the region with the most COVID-19 cases in the country, were not consulted before the DOTR decided to reduce physical distancing in public transport, said Metro Manila Council Chairman and Parañaque Mayor Edwin Olivarez on September 14.

“Personally, I would like to abide by the 1-meter standard of physical distancing,” said Department of Interior and Local Government Sec. Eduardo Año, also National Task Force COVID-19 vice chair.

Physical or social distancing

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defined Social distancing, also called “physical distancing,” as keeping a safe space between yourself and other people who are not from your household.

In a briefing on March 20, the WHO recommended the use of the term “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing.” The latter can imply a sense of disconnection from others at a time the WHO found that being physically isolated from others and while most of the world was on lockdown can take a toll on mental health and emphasized how critical it is for people to stay socially connected.

The US CDC also explained the need for social or physical distancing: “COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet or 1.8 m) for a prolonged period. Spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. The droplets can also be inhaled into the lungs. Recent studies indicate that people who are infected but do not have symptoms likely also play a role in the spread of COVID-19. Since people can spread the virus before they know they are sick, it is important to stay at least 6 feet away from others when possible, even if you—or they—do not have any symptoms.”

Netizens react

Many groups and netizens said that the DOTr should instead allow more public transportations to operate instead of reducing physical distancing. Tuazon countered this argument by saying they have been allowing more and more routes and jeepney units to go operate again.

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