Is Palawan prepared for a re-opening? After nearly two months hunkering to evade COVID-19 sweeping throughout the archipelago, Palawan was included this week in Malacanang’s list of provinces that will be scaled down a notch lower starting May 1, from ECQ to a General Community Quarantine.

There was an evident sigh of relief when this piece of news came out. People have been fretting throughout the lockdown, sharing a collective wish that the trend of near-zero incidences continues so that they can have their lives back.

The social media, emerging as the de facto community billboard of Palawan, has vividly captured the anxiety and angst of the body politic. Everyone with half an opinion to share is empowered by technology to let it out in the unbridled marketplace of just about anything. The center stalls have been reserved for the official pronouncements coming out from the city and the provincial government units and to some extent the local news media.

A step down to GCQ indicates the province is on track to normalcy or new normalcy as many would insist. It had seemed that the quarantine was successful in some ways in keeping COVID-19 at bay. But as nearly all medical experts have said, staying at home and washing one’s hands often is not the be-all and end-all of defeating the dreaded virus. Experts are in agreement that we need mass testing as a layer of defense to manage the cases and hold off the enemy, buying time before scientists finally figure out an antibody or a vaccine to turn the tables and draw a victory.

Palawan’s veil of seeming invincibility was cracked open this week. Puerto Princesa City reported on Saturday its second COVID-19 positive patient – a 63-year old male from Barangay Tanabag who had died of the disease on April 21 (the first case was the Australian who had left the city at the onset of the ECQ). At the same time the announcement was being made, a patient in a hospital died. The deceased, a 74-year old female, was the 8th patient who had died while waiting for laboratory tests results.

Details have yet to be disclosed on these cases, most importantly the question of whether they are indications of local transmission. Any proof of local transmission changes the ballgame entirely and will test our capacity at containment.

A look at Palawan’s inventory of COVID-19 capacity will suggest we are still very far from being ready. Apart from our lone COVID-referral hospital, the Ospital Palawan, which has a limited bed capacity for managing a surge in cases, the Department of Health’s official inventory count is we only have three temporary treatment and monitoring facilities (TTMF) in the city and one for the province (located in Cagayancillo).

For a population of over a million, we have only tested around 70 individuals for COVID-19 infection, all involving priority patients who have more than mild symptoms of the disease. As of last official count, we have 153 suspected and probable cases who have not been tested at all. We have 44 known asymptomatic cases, and who know how many are still out there.

Inadequate testing does not give us a baseline where we can state where we stand in terms of the extent of infection. It was only last week that the Department of Health had begun to roll out an expanded testing plan for the province, which could at least bring us close to a starting point.

As we continue to grapple with these questions, decisions and next steps actions to make, it is a no brainer to insist that everyone continue to be mindful of the risks and take precaution.

Even as we relax our quarantine status starting next week, social or physical distancing remains our only tool to confront an invisible enemy. Nothing else.

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