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Philippines Plans to Expand COVID-19 Testing

Dennis Jay Santos and Richel V. Umel
Davao and Iligan, Philippines
2020-05-19
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Medical workers in protective suits prepare for the arrival of overseas-based Filipinos at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Metro Manila, May 13, 2020.
Medical workers in protective suits prepare for the arrival of overseas-based Filipinos at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Metro Manila, May 13, 2020.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

A Philippine government spokesman said Tuesday that it planned to ramp up efforts to test Filipinos for COVID-19, after health officials reported that far less than 1 percent of the country’s 110 million people had been tested for the virus.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque defended the government’s low rate in conducting tests among the population. He suggested that the commonly used term “mass testing” was a misnomer, which should be replaced by “expanded targeted testing.”

“No country anywhere in the world is testing all of its citizens. The key to testing is to use benchmarks, meaning 1 [percent] to 2 percent of the population of the entire country, or in the case of an epicenter, higher than 10 percent,” Roque told reporters. “I think it is physically impossible to test 110 million.”

The country’s capacity to test for the coronavirus had grown to an average of 11,127 tests per day, as of May 15, compared with around 5,000 daily tests as of May 2, he said.

“We plan to be able to reach the capacity of doing 30,000 tests a day,” Roque said, adding that the government had already procured rapid testing kits, which were distributed to local government units that do not have existing testing laboratories.

Based on Roque’s calculations, Manila is aiming to test between 1.1 million and 2.2 million people. As of May 15, the government has tested just 0.19 percent of the population, or nearly 208,000 people, according to statistics published by the Department of Health on Monday.

He said there was no “perfect formula” to follow, adding that each country needed to build capacities and test broadly and swiftly.

Filipino contract workers wearing protective masks arrive on a flight from Hong Kong at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, May 13, 2020. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]
Filipino contract workers wearing protective masks arrive on a flight from Hong Kong at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, May 13, 2020. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]

Roque clarified the government’s position on testing, a day after saying that the Duterte administration would leave it to the private sector to carry out testing after the government eased a COVID-19 lockdown so as to help spur the economy.

After his earlier remarks caused a commotion, Roque on Tuesday said the health department had not issued a guideline for the private sector to carry out testing of employees returning to work. Still, it would welcome any efforts by private sector businesses to volunteer to foot the bill for testing, he said.

Meanwhile, health department spokeswoman Maria Rosario Vergeire said testing capacity could be boosted by the private sector, which has offered to put up modular laboratories in strategic locations across the Philippines.

“The licensing of laboratories is a highly technical and tedious process because we want to ensure the quality and safety in what we do, so we can prevent the risk of transmitting the disease in the community when we set up a laboratory,” Vergeire said.

In a separate statement on Monday, Roque had warned that there could be a new surge in coronavirus cases because people did not observe social distancing rules as they flocked to shopping malls in the Manila area that reopened during the weekend.

“There was no longer physical distancing, there was pushing. If we continue like that, we won’t get government assistance but rather COVID-19,” he said, adding, “Until there is a vaccine, we are not safe from COVID-19.”

Nearly 13,000 cases

The number of infections in the Philippines rose by 224 cases on Tuesday, bringing the total to 12,942, the health department said. Just six deaths were reported, bringing the total to 837.

Worldwide, more than 4.8 million have been infected, and at least 319,000 have died as of Tuesday according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

The rising number of positive cases in the country was acknowledged by President Rodrigo Duterte’s elite security detail, which on Tuesday said that 160 had tested positive for COVID-19.

Presidential Security Group (PSG) chief Col. Jesus Durante III said none of those who tested positive had close contact with the president. The 160 underwent quarantine away from Duterte’s residence.

Duterte, 74, belongs to the vulnerable age group and is afflicted with diseases including Buerger’s disease, an illness that affects the arteries of the limbs and is associated with heavy smoking.

“PSG troopers and their dependents undergo COVID-19 rapid testing every two weeks to detect the virus,” Durante said. “This is to ensure that PSG troopers do not become a threat to the president themselves and guarantee that his safety is not compromised in any way.”

And in news that broke early Wednesday (local time), Duterte, after a late-night cabinet meeting, said he was exonerating Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas, the police chief of Metro Manila, after authorities had charged him with allegedly violating COVID-19 quarantine rules by participating in a birthday bash in his honor with other police officers.

“This case of Sinas ... I am the one who does not want him removed. He is a good officer, an honest one. It was not his fault that his men serenaded him,” Duterte said.

“I don’t believe in firing him because people sang happy birthday,” he said. “It is my responsibility. But I will not order his transfer.”

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