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Mass testing

Admittedly, at the moment our country has limited resources for mass testing of COVID-19. But this must change immediately and this is where government must get its act together.

Nick V. Quijano Jr.



I am fervently hoping, as I write this, that all issues endangering frontline doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are being thoroughly addressed.

If by the time you read this the safety concerns of frontline healthcare workers are still not being alleviated, God help us!

As it stands, the health of our doctors, nurses and health aides is severely compromised. Their abilities to decisively meet a momentous public health emergency are rapidly deteriorating, caught as they are in an ill-equipped public health system which day by day is careening towards a dark abyss.

Turmoil at the frontlines is vividly horrendous. Already, four Metro Manila frontline doctors are dead, succumbing after getting infected by their patients. An unknown number of doctors are either bedridden or fighting for their lives in intensive care units (ICU), with serious cases hooked up to tubes to make them breathe.

At the same time, hundreds of other doctors, nurses and hospital aides are on ordered self-quarantines. UST Hospital, for instance, has 530 hospital staff on self-quarantine, almost half of its hospital staff.

Absent or immobilized hospital staff have a critical impact on the day-to-day fight against the disease and the race to save lives. A doctor tells us what it means: “A doctor who is on quarantine or is sick, that is equivalent to about thousands of patients he cannot save.” Without doctors and other health care workers, people will die who could have lived otherwise.

Yet as all these go on, a doctor tells us another undeniable truth: “So we are in the hospitals. Frontlines, we are in war every day… (But with) NO ARMS. This sounds like a suicide mission.” In short, frontline health care workers constantly face the lack of medical resources.

Health care workers are still not having enough personal protective equipment (PPE), they still lack crucial mechanical ventilators a critical COVID-19 patient needs, hospitals are also running out of ICU beds, and dwindling supplies of disinfectants and many other necessary medical supplies are facts of life.

Nothing illustrates graphically the lack of PPE than when several staff members of the St. Jude Family Hospital in Los Baños, Laguna were using garbage bags as improvised PPE to guard themselves against infection. It had come to that. Yet, as one frontline doctor says of the improvisations, anything is better than nothing at all.

How it came to this sorry, failing state came to be there are many reasons, too long to put it all down here. But one thing is clear: both private and government hospitals are in the same boat, though government hospitals face additional burdens.

One doctor complains of the additional burdens on government hospitals: “When the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise in the National Capital Region, it became immediately apparent that there was a staggering shortage of masks and alcohol in hospitals, forcing PGH (Philippine General Hospital) to launch calls for donations.”

“In a message to the PGH community, Director Gerardo Legaspi explained that it was ‘not much due to the shortage of funds, but due to the difficulty of purchasing the goods because of unavailable suppliers. If they were (available), the transactions that (the suppliers) were demanding and the price they were quoting were beyond what (the) government will allow us.”

Profiteering and greed were — and still are — punchingeverybody down and out.

Bureaucratic cretinism is also on the loose. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s tweet last Sunday sums up this frustrating cretinism: “All donations for med supplies must go to government for disposition. Private hospitals cannot receive them. They can buy from abroad but their shipments will be detained by CUSTOMS. The doctors and HCW are too busy getting exposed to do the paperwork. FIX THIS PUTANGINA.” Tiny bureaucratic minds have no idea of the urgency of it all.

On the frontlines, too, healthcare workers are also facing harsh choices. Crowded hospitals are being forced to choose who gets treated first and are already turning away COVID-19 patients.

Patients are already being told to “rest, take fluids, and come back if you feel like you’re dying.” This was what essentially happened in Quezon City when three positive COVID-19 patients were sent home due to lack of space in hospitals. All three patients came from urban poor communities, the communities where if the disease hits will undoubtedly lead to the horrific collapse of the public health system.

Frustration upon frustration on the medical frontlines are indeed piling up. Health care workers, however, are soldiering on, their morale boosted by scores of private individuals and businesses who have admirably responded to their immediate needs.

But in spite of massive donations and help, nothing is still enough. The war against COVID-19 is barely starting. And the heroic sacrifices of health care workers will be nothing if they are ill-prepared for the next crucial phase beyond the current lockdown strategy of the war against COVID-19.

The present lockdown strategy to contain the pandemic is medically necessary, allowing breathing room for our overwhelmed health care workers. Lockdowns hopefully will halt transmissions of the disease. We have no choice but to pay the steep price of unpreparedness of our health system with a lockdown.

A prolonged lockdown, however, cannot be sustained for obvious reasons of social and economic collapse. Beyond lockdowns is therefore the next phase of the war against the pandemic. And that calls for massive testing.

“Once we’ve suppressed the transmission, we have to go after the virus. We have to take the fight to the virus. What we really need to focus on is finding those who are sick, those who have the virus, and isolate them, find their contacts and isolate them,” says the World Health Organization.

Massive testing for COVID-19 is the order of the day. It is only by massive testing where the COVID-19 sick is found, stopping the spread of the disease.

Admittedly, at the moment our country has limited resources for mass testing of COVID-19. But this must change immediately and this is where government must get its act together — government must husband all its resources and money to get hold of test kits and do mass testing.


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