COVID-19 task force approves plan to bolster national testing

Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
COVID-19 task force approves plan to bolster national testing
Mega Swabbing Center in Philippine Sports Stadium in Sta Maria Bulacan pictured last May 20, 2020.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases on Thursday night approved a plan to expand national testing for the novel coronavirus disease.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Friday said the new testing strategy aims to exponentially increase the number of tests conducted to about 10 million. Latest data from the health department shows that only 680,230 Filipinos — less than 1% of the population — have been tested so far.

"In principle, the plan to test beyond those who are symptomatic has been approved but let's await for the actual guidelines to be issued by the national task force and the health department," presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Friday said in a mix of English and Filipino during his daily Laging Handa virtual briefing.

Under the previous guidelines, healthcare workers and patients with severe or critical and mild symptoms and the vulnerable populations were prioritized for RT-PCR testing.

'Expanded targeted testing'

National Task Force Against COVID-19 Deputy Chief Implementer and testing czar Vince Dizon first unveiled the new testing strategy during a Palace briefing on Monday. At the time, it was still pending IATF approval.

He said the government would specifically be expanding testing into two sectors: non-medical front liners and those working in critical economic zones.

Dizon listed policemen, soldiers, supermarket workers, sari-sari store vendors and street vendors as some of the non-medical front liners to be prioritized under the new guidelines for testing.

He added that "those [working] in manufacturing, in our factories, those that work in economic zones and those that work in sectors that are very important like...the [business processing outsourcing] BPO sector" would also be prioritized for testing.

Roque on Friday also listed the media and frontliners from other government agencies as those who would be newly prioritized under the government's testing strategy.

"The idea now is we have to shift the strategy in order to manage COVID-19 and keep the economy open and working in order to make sure that we are able to bounce back from the contraction that we experienced in the first quarter and definitely in the second quarter," Dizon said on Monday.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire in June said her department aims to test around 1.63 million Filipinos—about 1.5% of the population—by the end of the month.

To achieve this goal, the government would have to double the number of tests it has conducted so far in less than 30 days.

The government, however, has previously struggled to meet its testing goals. It has also flip-flopped on whether the goals it sets for itself refer to testing capacity or the actual number of tests to be conducted.

As the Philippines continues to be under the longest community quarantine in the world, the Health department on Thursday logged 38,805 cases of novel coronavirus along with a death toll of 1,274.

Researchers from the University of the Philippines estimate that the number of COVID-19 cases in the country could soar to 60,000 by the end of July as the Philippines is still experiencing “significant” community transmission of the illness. 

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