FASSSTER; ‘Vax to the max’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

This is not a misspelled word. Neither is it a screaming headline to denote a demand for more swift action. Actually, FASSSTER is an acronym that stood for: Feasibility Analysis of Syndromic Surveillance using Spatio-Temporal Epidemiological Modeler. For early detection of disease, the acronym FASSSTER was coined in calling for short the various groups that monitor together with the government all the data related to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases all over the Philippines.

Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III credited FASSSTER as among the latest tools the government has been using for an effective monitoring and detection of a potential surge of COVID-19 cases in particular parts of the country. In an attempt to recall the exact meaning of the acronym during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum via zoom last Wednesday, Duque quipped in exasperation: “It has highfalutin words!”

“It’s actually a tongue twister,” the DOH Secretary conceded.

In simple layman’s language, FASSSTER is a web-based disease surveillance platform being used for COVID-19 projections and modeling. So far, Duque expressed his satisfaction on their use of FASSSTER. As co-chairman of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID), Duque described its function as vital in the granular lockdown the government is imposing to lessen impact to the country’s economy.

Also guest in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum, presidential adviser for entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion welcomed the downtrend of COVID-19 cases all over the country. Concepcion believes the “hard lockdown” that President Duterte re-imposed last August and September have apparently succeeded to contain the resurgence of COVID-19 cases due to the outbreak here of the more transmissible Delta variant. This was why, Concepcion pointed out, they – in the private sector – supported the hard lockdown in order “to save the fourth quarter of this year” for the country’s economic turnaround.

From hindsight, Concepcion heaved a sigh of relief that the sacrifices made during the hard lockdowns paid off in containing the Delta-induced surge of COVID-19 cases in our country. Thankfully, he recalled, the country has already rolled out at least seven brands of anti-COVID vaccines, made available either by donation or by Philippine government procurement.

Concepcion headed the “Dose of Hope” tripartite agreements with vaccine-maker AstraZeneca last year. It enabled the national government and the local government units (LGUs), along with the private sector, to pre-order 17 million doses of anti-COVID vaccines. According to him, all pre-ordered doses will be fully delivered before the end of this year.

Thus, Duque noted, the surge of pandemic due to the Delta variant in the Philippines was far less damaging compared to its neighbors like Indonesia and Malaysia. The single-day highest recorded COVID-19 cases in our country reached 26,303 on Sept. 11. On Wednesday, however, the Philippines logged only 1,591 new COVID-19 cases – the lowest daily number of infections reported since February.

As recommended by the IATF, President Duterte approved the new Alert Level System, with the DOH as the primary agency to determine which areas will be placed on granular lockdowns based on the FASSSTER projections on COVID-19 cases.

Duque described the composition of FASSSTER as individuals who are all specialists in their respective fields in science, academe, mathematics, statistics, health, epidemiology, and medicine. The groups include the Octa Research headed by professors Ranjit Rye and Guido David of the University of the Philippines (UP).

In the early months after the COVID-19 pandemic struck our country in March last year, presidential spokesman Harry Roque called out Octa for its projections of COVID-19 cases as being comparatively higher than the official figures being released by the DOH. As concurrent official spokesman for the IATF, Roque noted with concern the potential public panic on Octa’s high-end projections of COVID-19 cases.

According to Duque, the FASSSTER chiefly contributed a lot to the much-improved government response measures against the COVID-19 pandemic. Duque admitted it enables the DOH to make accurate “growth projections” of COVID-19 cases in specific areas. Thus, it aids the DOH in determining the Alert Level in the imposition of “granular lockdowns.”

Using the present system, the DOH would place area or areas in granular lockdown based on Alert Levels ranging from 1 to 5, with Alert Level 5 as high-risk for COVID-19 infection and Alert-Level 1 as no risk. He likened this to a public storm alert to warn the public of the risks of getting infected with COVID-19 in these areas. Duque explained the Alert Level system is much area-specific and not as widespread compared to the community quarantine classifications imposed by the IATF in the past.

Like Duque, Concepcion echoed the importance of ramping up vaccination deployment all over the Philippines now that the world supply of anti-COVID vaccines have stabilized. Through Concepcion’s “Dose of Hope,” the private sector had worked together to procure the much-needed anti-COVID vaccines from all possible sources. Concepcion stressed all of these initiatives are supported by fellow business leaders from the private sector.

The next challenge to him is how to convince Filipinos on the benefits of getting anti-COVID vaccine. Concepcion expressed concern on the reported vaccine hesitancy of Filipinos, especially in the countryside. In a bid to help the government to get Filipinos avail the free anti-COVID jabs, Concepcion launched his latest “Go Negosyo” project to encourage LGUs to step up their respective vaccination programs. He dubbed his latest project “Vax to the Max,” based on the DOH dashboard of COVID-19 cases all over the country.

With FASSSTER and “Vax to Max” on the roll, both Duque and Concepcion believe these would lead Filipinos to a much merrier, quarantine-free Christmas.

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