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Red tape deadlier than virus



Expectations are grim as the government mouthpieces admitted on Tuesday that the Philippines’ war against the COVID-19 has just started, three months after its spread was first reported by China.

That more positive patients are expected to be tested is not giving the best of hopes to the citizenry, but other countries’ pattern — like those of China and Italy, where the virus outbreak was massive — says so, and the Department of Health (DoH) is bracing for the real numbers to kick in.

But red tape — those procedural delays in the purchase and distribution of testing kits and machines and the establishment of laboratories to effectively test for COVID-19 — is killing more Filipinos than the otherwise controllable virus.

The initial lack of testing kits, even DoH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire admitted, was responsible for the low number of positive COVID-19 cases to date. The agency expects more, maybe by the thousands, when the country’s health facilities are finally able to test patients with ease and accuracy.

But it is the same DoH that is slowing down the importation of testing kits and machines, bolstered by the bureaucratic limitations set by the Bureau of Customs (BoC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that stalls the country’s fight against the new coronavirus.

The DoH website was also down on Tuesday afternoon. The agency’s COVID-19 tracker site still listed 462 positive patients, 606 Persons Under Investigation (PUI) and 6,321 Persons Under Monitoring (PUM) with tests conducted on only 1,622 persons.

Among those who had themselves tested were government VIP who requested the tests done in their homes. These numbers were posted on 4 p.m. of Monday and the tracker remained inactive for a whole day since.

Vergeire later went on TV to announce that there are now 32 deaths and 522 patients. The pattern is upwards and we have yet to see its full effect as we wait for more to be tested.

But worse is the slow delivery of testing kits, most of which had yet been accredited nor validated by the DoH and the FDA. These add to the DoH’s supposed underreporting of the real number of positive patients.

There is no shortage of donors, though. But bringing in the necessities for this fight is also a hurdle, no thanks to the BoC rules in this time of a global pandemic.

A Filipino-Chinese businessman had brought in testing kits, masks and COVID-19 testing machines. He issued these supplies to a lawmaker who found hospitals which could use them effectively and efficiently.

These were donated to the V. Luna Hospital in Quezon City, a military medical facility.

The DoH, however, only has the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Muntinlupa City handling all the tests. That explains the slow processing of the previous tests that come late, some of them released only after the patient had died.

The DoH has designated the Philippine General Hospital in Manila, the Lung Center of the Philippines in Quezon City and the Dr. Jose N. Rodriguez Memorial Hospital in Caloocan City as exclusive COVID-19 facilities. But still, all tests are processed at the RITM.

COVID testing machines

A COVID-19 testing machine, however, costs only $300,000 per unit.

The businessman-donor said these can be sourced easily from the makers. Each machine, he said, can give results of 80-100 samples per day.

“What are we going to do? Where are we going to put what we earned if we cannot ensure the lives of the people are taken cared of?” the donor asked. “For what? When everyone has perished?”

The DoH facilities are now heavy with patients, clogged even. And with no laboratory that could accommodate all patients, the agency would not know the real numbers and is likely to lose this fight.

But the DoH would yet accredit other hospitals. The result is the clogging of the number of patients who seek to be tested and treated.

Private hospitals could not also acquire the testing machines and put up sterilized nuclear laboratories, which could contribute to identifying the positive patients which could lead to arrest the further spread of the virus.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque yesterday said the agency has received another 1,000 test kits. These are not enough to cover the PUM, which is six times more than the kits in DoH’s possession.

The BoC also require importers of products related to the COVID-19 fight to obtain appropriate marketing authorization from the FDA, through a Certificate of Product Notification or a Certificate of Product Registration. These will cover the importation of masks, shoe covers, gloves, head covers, gowns and even Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), which many hospitals now claim is scarce.

The lack of PPE has resulted in hundreds of medical workers falling under the PUI and PUM categories. Several frontliner doctors are now in intubation while four of them died due to COVID-19. Their test results came late.

Marikina Mayor Marcelino Teodoro also expressed disappointment at the DoH for its refusal to allow the local government to operate a laboratory facility it set up independently to help curb the virus outbreak.

Teodoro said those who reside in the Rizal Province and the other cities should benefit from the Marikina facility, but the DoH is not acting on its request. Teodoro had said he is willing to put the facility under the DoH management.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) called for a mass testing to really address the virus cases.

“We recognize the mitigation strategies of the government of implementing community quarantine and physical distancing to help curb the spread of the virus. But we also need strategies which can be facilitated by mass testing,” CHR spokesman Jacqueline de Guia said.

The DoH, however, has no capability to conduct a mass testing at this time.

with ELMER N. MANUEL @tribunephl_lmer,