Sep 30, 2020

Editorial: The cost and worthiness of mass testing

According to the tracking reports of the Department of Health, there has so far been only one confirmed case of coronavirus infection since the ECQ began on March 17 – a case that involved a visiting Australian national who has since left the province and has reportedly already recovered.

A little over two weeks into the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and Palawan seems to be doing just fine in keeping COVID-19 in check, at least simplistically going by the numbers.

According to the tracking reports of the Department of Health, there has so far been only one confirmed case of coronavirus infection since the ECQ began on March 17 – a case that involved a visiting Australian national who has since left the province and has reportedly already recovered.

At the outset of the ECQ, Palawan also has had a total of 39 individuals classified as patients under investigation (PUI) who had been tested at the Regional Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM). All, except for the Australian tourist, yielded negative results while one remaining test is yet to be completed by RITM.

Apart from those tested at the RITM lab, there are 84 other PUIs who are all under home quarantine, except for two who are confined in hospitals for other illnesses. Under the existing health protocols, these individuals may not to be subjected to tests unless they exhibit more than mild symptoms of the illness. The reason why this is so is simply because the country’s laboratory capacity is extremely limited.

Contact association with a covid-positive person automatically makes another person a candidate virus carrier and is thus required to undergo a 14-day home quarantine. This includes individuals who have a recent history of travel from other places with confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks. Palawan has currently around 3,700 of these individuals, classified under the protocol as persons under monitoring (PUM).

The current capacity of the Philippine health system does not allow a strategy such as massive testing of the entire population, like what South Korea and several other countries including China had done with significant impacts. In lieu of such best practice models of COVID-19 management, the Philippines has adopted strict border controls and widescale lockdowns as its main strategies. It is one that is anchored in the hope that by having people staying at their homes, virus transmission will be avoided and the dreaded illness could simply die out.

While the medical community is on a race to develop a vaccine for the disease, the emergence of mobile testing kits successfully tested on the ground has stoked a loud cry for massive testing.

The call for massive testing is a science-based strategy to defeat COVID-19 as it provides for a better management of PUIs and PUMs. It provides a way for those who are healthy to go on with the normal lives and become productive in society.

The provincial government announced recently that it had received a private donation of some 800 test kits from China. While it was readily endorsed for use by the provincial health officer, it has yet to be scrutinized by the Department of Health.

If allowed for use in Palawan, the test kits promises at the least to improve the management of just over a hundred PUIs and PUMs. It provides a handy tactical tool for slowing down a potential advance of the virus.

While test kits allow isolated large populations like Palawan to more effectively manage its PUIs and PUMs, it does not negate the necessity for the province to have its own laboratory capacity to perform conclusive confirmatory tests. Only with such capacity can Palawan decisively defeat COVID-19.

Putting in place such capacity deserves to be on top of Palawan health policy agenda. So be it, even if it is a strain on the pocket. Its advantages far outweigh the cost.

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