A COVID-19 testing laboratory is set to start operations at the Ospital Ng Palawan (ONP), a breakthrough which health officials say will facilitate a faster and more expanded coronavirus disease testing in the province.

Dr. Mary Ann Navarro, chief of the Provincial Health Office (PHO), said during an online press briefing Wednesday that the ONP is expecting to secure its license to operate the facility from the Department of Health (DOH) in the next few days.

“May bibisita sa [ONP] bukas (Thursday) para mag-license. Ito ang final procedure, pero pinayagan na sila dahil certified na ng RITM (Research Institute for Tropical Medicine). Anytime puwede na sila mag-test, hindi na tayo magpapadala sa Manila, sa ONP na lang,” Navarro added.

Once operational, the laboratory will allow local testing of specimen samples and relieve the province of having to send specimens to the RITM laboratories in Metro Manila.

Dr. Navarro said the laboratory facility, which utilizes a GeneXpert machine reconfigured for COVID-19 testing, will produce test results in under two hours.

“Ang result ay makukuha two hours or less kaysa ang sa Manila, 24 to 48 hours pero dumadating one week or more,” she said.

Dr. Melecio Dy, hospital director of the ONP, in a separate interview, echoed Navarro’s statement but pointed out that the license to operate is still pending. He said the laboratory would have to be re-assessed after complying with the “technical aspect” of the facility imposed by the DOH.

“We will know hopefully by tomorrow (May 14) the response of the licensing office. We have complied [with] the technical aspect of the facility requirement,” Dr. Dy said.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque, in Memorandum No. 2020-0191 issued on April 21, said that the GeneXpert machine, which was commonly used for tuberculosis (TB) culture laboratory, was certified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on March 26. The machine would be repurposed for COVID-19 testing by utilizing Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV-2 cartridges.

Renee Joy Batiforra, spokesperson of the Provincial DOH Office (PDOHO), said that the regulations, licensing, and enforcement division (RLED) team of the Center for Health Development (CHD)-MIMAROPA is poised to have the ONP’s “final assessment” this week.

“Natapos na sila [ONP personnel] sa training so ang next step na ang final assessment ng RLED,” Batiforra said.

Dr. Emerose Moreno, regional incident commander, in a virtual press conference on May 8, reiterated that the individuals who would undergo COVID-19 testing will still have to meet the “priority group” set by the province.

“Wala tayong target percentage kasi naka-depende ito sa priority groups na maaa-identify ng provinces,” Moreno said.

Palawan governor Jose Alvarez, in an earlier statement, said that P122 million was already drawn from the local government’s fund to purchase medical equipment, medicines, and other supplies.

Puerto Princesa City mayor Lucilo Bayron was also granted with the authority to dispense some P472 million calamity fund by the City Council through Resolution No. 0452-2020 issued in a special session on March 20.