Doctor calls for COVID-19 mass testing in PH

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 27) — A doctor and health reform advocate on Friday raised the need for the Philippines to conduct mass testing for novel coronavirus to avoid the "collapse" of the country's healthcare system.

Tony Leachon, an internist at the Manila Doctors Hospital, told CNN Philippines this is necessary to isolate patients and prevent healthcare workers from being exposed to the highly-contagious viral disease.

"If there are mass testings, then we can isolate them and do not expose these patients na symptomatic PUIs or even the COVID cases in the emergency room. So ang problem pagka the health care workers are exposed, immediately five or ten people who are exposed to the patients will be quarantined and this will reduce the number of workforce that will actually see the patients," he said.

[Translation: If there are mass testings then we can isolate them and they do not reach the emergency rooms. When five or ten workers are exposed to the patients, they have to undergo quarantine. This will reduce the number of healthcare workers who can take care of patients.]

Out of the 45 COVID-19 deaths in the country, at least nine are doctors who were exposed to patients who tested positive. Hundreds of medical staff have also been placed under quarantine.

Leachon underscored the importance of mass testing, noting that the numbers presented by health officials do not reflect the real health situation because only selected people are tested for COVID-19 due to limited test kits. He added most test results are being release when the patient has died.

The Department of Health is only allowing testing of those with severe symptoms, members of the vulnerable sector showing mild symptoms, and Philippine government officials.

Leachon said it is important to be able to have data and demographics of persons under investigation, confirmed cases, and the amount of medical supplies and available protective gear. He said this will help frontliners respond properly to the COVID-19 crisis.

The doctor warned the healthcare system may crumble if the current situation of limited tests and delayed results persists.

"We need all of these things because I think the primary concern of the people right now, 20 percent or 23 percent of the healthcare workers, based on the report of the Department of Health, are dying. So, we might be depleting our healthcare workforce and we will not be able to heal the sick. If this will happen, there will be a collapse of the health care system and that will be very very disturbing," he said.

Mass testing for COVID-19 means prioritizing testing frontline workers and members of communities where there are confirmed cases. It also rejects VIP treatment for officials who are not showing flu-like symptoms. As of Thursday, laboratories have conducted 2,147 tests, excluding specimens that have yet to be processed.

Health spokesperson Ma. Rosario Vergeire has repeatedly said the country is not ready to conduct mass testing despite the arrival of thousands more test kits. A COVID-19 patient will need at least two tests during the course of their treatment.

Leachon said that despite the recent designation of several hospitals as testing laboratories and referral centers, their capabilities are not yet fully ready.

"Kaka-establish pa lang natin ng COVID hospitals (COVID hospitals have just been established) like PGH, Lung Center, and one in Bulacan, and other areas, but we don't have the manpower to have the laboratory, the set-up, or the guidance," he said.

Leachon said the country has a slow and weak system right now that is "just responding to the situation."

"We have just established our COVID hospitals... So, the epidemic is right now here with us and yet we don’t have COVID hospitals, and the other test kits, and other laboratories," he added.

Vergeire countered Leachon, saying there is no way to possibly prepare for a pandemic.

"We are trying to prepare. We cannot say we are prepared, and we can do everything. We are trying to ready ourselves for the eventuality where surge of cases would happen," she told CNN Philippines on Friday.

She said the number of cases is expected to rise in the coming days as more laboratories expand their testing capacity.

"We are now stabilizing the process in our laboratories," she added.

The country has recorded a total of 707 coronavirus disease cases in the country.