The Department of Health (DoH) is seeking to update the Philippines’ anti-coronavirus protocols by making testing optional for those who are not part of the vulnerable population and by shortening the isolation period of fully vaccinated patients and their close contacts.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Thursday explained that the proposed policy shift is backed by science, adding that it’s was necessary given the government’s limited resources as Covid-19 cases in the country continue to increase.
The new rules, which some doctors fear may worsen the country’s Covid-19 situation, have yet to be implemented. The DoH will present it to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) for “alignment with other government agencies.”
Pandemic policies are normally approved by the IATF before these are enforced, and may be overturned by President Rodrigo Duterte.
Under the proposed guidelines, Covid-19 testing will no longer be required among Filipinos who had close contact with coronavirus patients, provided that they are not part of the vulnerable groups, namely, the health workforce and the elderly population.
Those who are experiencing mild symptoms of Covid-19, but are not part of the vulnerable groups, also need not undergo testing for coronavirus, according to the DoH.
However, they should undergo quarantine and monitor their symptoms.
Duque said the updated policy will give way to the prioritization of health workers, the elderly, and people with health risks for Covid-19 testing so they can be given medications within the first five days since the onset of their symptoms.
“The policy shift is toward prioritizing testing of A1, A2, and A3 groups within our framework, given the limitations of our capacity testing at that moment,” he said.
The DoH is also eyeing to reduce the isolation period of Covid-19 patients among the general public from the previous 10-day requirement to seven days, provided they are fully vaccinated and exhibit mild symptoms only.
Those who are manifesting mild symptoms or none at all but are partially vaccinated or unvaccinated should still undergo a 10-day isolation period, the department said.
Individuals with moderate symptoms, regardless of vaccination status, will need to quarantine for 10 days. The 21-day isolation for severe and critical cases, and those who are immunocompromised, is also retained.
Meanwhile, the quarantine period of asymptomatic close contacts who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 was shortened to five days from seven days.
If they are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated and have been exposed to Covid-positive individuals, they will need to quarantine for 14 days.
The rules meant for the general public were earlier introduced for medical professionals as the surge in coronavirus infections threaten to overwhelm the country’s health care capacity.
The updated DoH policy also stated that contact tracing, one of the key strategies against the pandemic, should no longer be a government priority.
“When there is widespread community transmission and this is sustained, it is impractical to do contact tracing and you will just waste a lot of resources,” Duque said.
Instead, contact tracers hired by local government units should be given other tasks meant to curb virus transmission, the health chief said.
“What we can do is utilize contact tracers to other impactful activities like monitoring of people who are in home isolation or quarantine,” Duque said.
“We can also tap them in our vaccination efforts and our health promotion,” he added.
The proposed guidelines did not sit well with some doctors as the Philippines, deemed at “critical risk” for Covid-19, has been reporting over 25,000 new cases daily over the past week.
Health reform advocate Dr. Anthony “Tony” Leachon, a vocal critic of the administration’s pandemic response, expressed concern over the relaxation of Covid-19 policies.
While Leachon acknowledged that some countries such as the United States had earlier imposed the same guidelines, he said easing up rules may pose additional risks for the country.
“If we try to be more lenient now where more people may be exposed to the virus, then we might actually create more problems,” he told the Daily Tribune through a phone interview.
“It might be too early to update the rules considering that we are still in the acceleration phase of infections and we are nowhere near the peak,” Leachon added.
He described the proposed testing guidelines as an “admission” of the government’s limited testing capacity, noting that the Philippines has yet to approve self-administered antigen test kits.
The doctor also slammed the shortened quarantine and isolation guidelines over the risks that sick people may infect others.
“We have yet to see a downward trend in cases and these rules may aggravate the situation,” he said.