We are not yet out of the woods, three months into Puerto Princesa City’s unprecedented Covid surge that has already claimed the lives of at least 16 people and counting. We have begun vaccinating, which is a good thing, but authorities admit we have yet to see worse.
We currently have close to 700 people in at least 12 quarantine facilities, not to include those who are at the hospitals with severe to critical cases. The city’s main facility, Sunlight Hotel, is already a makeshift hospital attending to severe cases as there are no more beds available at the Ospital ng Palawan (ONP), the province’s sole designated Covid hospital.
Almost every day, we add more patients to the pool of active cases as we test those who have been exposed to positive patients. The positivity rate of those tests is expectedly high, considering that the antigen test that we use in contact tracing is fairly accurate in detecting the COVID-19 virus. Dr. Dean Palanca, in a recent conversation with Palawan News, even confirmed they will soon no longer distinguish the difference between the antigen test and the so-called confirmatory RT-PCR tests done at the ONP’s GeneXpert laboratory.
But are we testing enough? No. We only test those who are contact traced and those who voluntarily go through it because they needed it for travel or related necessities. This means we don’t know how much infection has spread or is spreading, throughout the population.
Do we need to do mass testing? Dr. Dean Palanca agrees but admits that we have no more capacity to do random tests because our isolation facilities are already overwhelmed. Overwhelmed means that while new isolation facilities can be put up, we don’t have the workforce — doctors and nurses — to oversee them.
Health experts are united behind the strategy of mass testing. It is an efficient way to identify and isolate carriers of the virus and bring down the level of infection in a population. We don’t have this in the city and the entire Palawan. To do mass testing is to spend a vast amount of money, considering the commercial cost of antigen test averaging at P3,000 per procedure.
Without mass testing, our only hope is the completion of the vaccination rollout so that we reach the 70 percent of population target, which the WHO says is the critical point of attaining herd immunity. City authorities believe this is a reachable target within the year, at the rate our vaccination effort is moving. It is being as reasonably optimistic as we can be.
But between now and the attainment of these vaccination targets, there is no assumption that we can immediately stop the surge that is escalating daily.
The national IATF has offered to help and has flagged our case as a national priority. It makes reasonable sense to bring out the mass testing agenda on the table with the IATF and explore ways how it can be done.
If mass testing had been done in so many other places in the world, it must be doable here. It is the only way we can stop the bleeding and the suffering while waiting for that proverbial light to appear before us.