Testing tribulations and Pag-asa’s legacy

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - January 14, 2021 - 12:00am

Our youngest daughter, Ina, left for Spain some days ago, but not without more than the normal dose of apprehension – not because of the rising numbers of COVID-19 infections in Europe or the emergence of a new and more transmittable variant, but because of the suspension of a laboratory’s license here in the Philippines.

Days before her departure, news of passengers unable to depart according to their flight schedule were aired after the suspended laboratory’s test results were not accepted at the airport departure office. Additionally, there were those who were unable to get their results, a requisite to travel abroad.

Ina had to arrange for swabbing at a nearby hospital and had to pay extra to get her results rushed right before her departure. For most of Filipinos who have to leave for jobs abroad, getting on the plane on the scheduled time and date is of paramount importance.

Our daughter was able to leave, but many of those who were caught unprepared had to suffer the inconvenience of rebooking tickets, going through the process of getting travel permits, rearranging overseas commitments, on top of experiencing anxious moments.

The Department of Health (DOH) has all the right to revoke permits of any of its laboratories that fail to meet its requirements, but this can be done in a manner wherein travelers and other people who have taken the swab tests get the results when needed.

Not only are livelihoods, especially of overseas Filipino workers at stake here, but also the safety of people who may need to be quickly informed of having been in contact with a person found positive of COVID-19.

Testing in numbers

Testing laboratories have gotten a fair share of better earnings last year because of the pandemic. From just one testing center before the lockdowns, the country now has close to 400, with over 150 capable of doing reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests. About 7 million tests were logged in 2020 for the Philippines or an average of 19,000 tests per day.

Testing has become more accessible to Filipinos now and even the results made available within 24 hours for emergency cases, of course, with an additional fee. A few months ago, the quickest turnaround for test results was a week.

The cost of testing, on the other hand, is still high, especially for the poor who incidentally belong to one of the more vulnerable sectors. Local governments where poverty incidences and transmission rates are high have been trying to address this high cost by providing some form of subsidy when funds are available.

High cost

Within the month, the Philippines is expected to breach the 500,000th infection case number, ranking the country 123rd of 221 that have reported COVID-19 incidences. These statistics, however, are not comforting given the fact that testing is not always available to anyone who needs it because of the cost.

The DOH had earlier set a price cap for swab tests at P3,800 for public facilities, but this amount is still unaffordable for most low-income Filipinos, even with local government subsidies.

The Philippine Red Cross (PRC), which does about 25 to 30 percent of tests nationwide, is proposing a shift to saliva tests that cost 50 percent lower than RT-PCR tests. The process for approval is underway, and this could prove to be another significant improvement in our readiness to dealing with the pandemic.

Should saliva testing, which claims to have a 95 percent concordance rate, be allowed, the costs for the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) would significantly be reduced. Currently, the state insurer’s tab with PRC runs to about P30 million to P35 million a day.

The PRC has been following up on PhilHealth’s mounting payment backlog, citing the risk of jeopardizing its operations in servicing the pandemic-related requirements of frontline workers, as well as incoming Filipino overseas workers.

With new variants of COVID-19 that are said to be more contagious threatening the country, all attention must be given to making testing more available, with results coming out more quickly, and less costly.

Pag-asa’s legacy

Tomorrow would have marked the 29th birthday of Pag-asa, the first Philippine eagle born and bred in captivity. Pag-asa evokes some sentimentality in me, not just because he was born on my birthday, but also because of the support that Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corp., where I worked for three decades had given to the Davao-based Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF).

Ed Mapa, my colleague then at Corporate Communication and former Shell commercial sales manager at Davao, was instrumental in paving the way for the involvement of Pilipinas Shell with PEF.

A few days before Pag-asa’s hatching through artificial insemination, then PEF executive director Dennis Salvador personally walked me and Ed through the initiatives that the foundation was doing to increase the number of Philippine eagles, which was already endangered by deforestation and unbridled hunting.

Artificial insemination is now the last recourse by the PEF, having found a way to improve breeding through natural pairing, a risky process because of the larger female Philippine eagle’s ferocity towards mating if she does not favor a suitor.

Shell’s support, along with many other individuals and companies, has helped in expanding the PEF’s operations and facilities. The endemic Philippine eagle is still on the endangered watch list, but the PEF has persevered in supporting laws that penalize those who kill, wound, or hunt the specie.

The PEF has managed to breed 28 eaglets, including Mabuhay, Pag-asa’s only offspring through artificial insemination. Pag-asa, even with his death, will continue to inspire others to protect the Philippine eagle from extinction.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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