Flying blind

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

In other countries where Omicron has become the dominant variant, new COVID cases double every two to three days.

In our case, after a frightening surge from just 318 in the week beginning Dec. 27 to 34,021 yesterday (another record high from Wednesday’s 33,169), the transmission seems to be decelerating.

Is the infection plateauing?

Health experts and infection trend trackers alike say it’s too early to tell; a few more weeks of sustained deceleration is needed. At this stage, considering the positivity and average daily attack rates plus daily new infections, they are projecting the Omicron-driven surge to peak at the end of the month – meaning at least two weeks of thousands more people getting sick, with several possibly dying.

Infection trackers have noted that case numbers tend to slow or even dip on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, mainly because many testing centers are closed during weekends.

In South Africa where Omicron was first reported, Our World in Data figures show daily cases surging from 312 on Nov. 22 to a dizzying 18,586 on Nov. 23 and to 37,875 by Dec. 12. Infections then inexplicably began slowing down, totaling 9,793 on the first day of 2022 and 5,668 on Jan. 11.

A common theory is that because of the high transmissibility of Omicron, it infects a huge number of people within such a short time that it quickly runs out of new hosts. This, hopeful scientists say, can herald the shift from pandemic to endemic stage.

In our case, however, another possibility in the slowdown in infections is underreporting.

Even the Department of Health has said this, as it noted that rapid antigen test results, administered at home and in offices (and now on the light rail trains) are not recorded by the DOH.

So infections could be doubling, but we wouldn’t know it.

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Inaccurate data on test results could wreak havoc on pandemic response, including decisions on hospital bed allocations and alert level classifications.

This inaccuracy is on top of the government’s failure to implement an efficient and coordinated contact tracing system from Day One.

Efficient digital contact tracing plus accessible COVID testing have been critical components of the responses of the places that have best managed to contain the virus, among them Taiwan and New Zealand. Tracing and testing make targeted isolation possible and free up more businesses and economic activities.

China, with its COVID-zero policy, combines its contact tracing with city-wide total lockdowns of a few days, during which mandatory mass nucleic acid testing (like RT-PCR) is carried out… but this is communist China.

Since two tourists from COVID Ground Zero, China’s Wuhan City, were verified to be Patient Nos. 1 and 2  in the Philippines, there has been a lot of talk about the need for an efficient contact tracing system in our country.

Twenty-two months later, with the most transmissible COVID variant raging through Metro Manila and soon, inevitably, across the country, our contact tracing capability is close to zero.

The StaySafe digital app is a disaster. The different contact tracing apps of some local government units are not interoperable and are not connected to a central database of the DOH. A person who lies about COVID infection in the StaySafe app will not be found out.

We have an entire executive department in charge of information and communications technology. Yet after 22 months, we have no digital contact tracing network to speak of, and education officials are lamenting the weaknesses of distance learning. Maybe Gregorio Honasan was too busy working on his campaign for a Senate comeback while he was in charge of the DICT throughout most of the pandemic.

Instead we have relied on human contact tracers, whose contracts were scrapped some months ago due to lack of funds allotted to the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, who had previously tried to quit as contact tracing czar (he says he has decided to stay on, to the bitter end), has lamented bureaucratic red tape in renewing the contracts and again deploying human contact tracers.

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People might find some consolation in the observation of Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, that at this point in the latest surge, with so many people infected and the virus still on a rampage, contact tracing is no longer so useful and a priority in the pandemic response.

This is the situation in countries now with the highest COVID cases, driven by both Omicron and the virulent Delta – the United States and United Kingdom.

As we are currently seeing, Vergeire told us on One News’ “The Chiefs” this week, entire households are being infected, so you don’t even need contact tracing. She says that as soon as any member of the household develops a cold, cough, fever, body aches or similar symptoms, the person should stay home and isolate, and get tested for SARS-CoV-2.

Prof. Jomar Rabajante of the University of the Philippines pandemic response team, however, says that while contact tracing may indeed lose its usefulness when you are recording hundreds of thousands or even a million new infections (as in the US) daily, it is still useful in preventing a surge in areas where the contagion is just starting.

UP math professor Guido David of the OCTA Research Group says that without contact tracing data, and with so many new infections going unreported to the DOH, it will reach a point where pandemic trend trackers like OCTA will be “flying blind.”

Both David and Rabajante lament the likelihood of getting inaccurate data from the national government, on which they base their projections.

Flying blind would mesh well with the government’s attitude in dealing with this latest COVID wave: bahala na si Batman.


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