Senators lambaste health officials over lack of testing kits for COVID-19

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Two senators lambasted health officials over the lack of testing kits available in the Philippines amid the reported local transmission of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) with 20 confirmed cases.

During Monday’s Senate committee on economic affairs public hearing on the impact risk assessment of COVID-19,  Senator Nancy Binay questioned health officials about the number of testing kits available.

“As we speak today, our stock on hand is good for 2,000 tests,” said Dr. Rossana Ditangco of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).

Binay then asked  if the Department of Health (DOH)  plans to procure additional testing kits.

Ditangco told the committee chaired by Senator Imee Marcos that RITM is requesting for P43 million for the procurement of testing kits and other “various needs.”

“That’s the problem  because  you always procure various needs, but the frontline– the testing kit, we still do not have,” she said.

“Where will you use that budget?,” Marcos asked  the health officials.

She also requested for a  breakdown of their P43-million request to be submitted to her committee.

Marcos said she had misgivings over how the DOH would use the requested P2 billion supplemental budget.

“Their  testing kit for the public is only 2,000 pieces. Will you not go crazy here?  And then they are asking for P2 billion supplemental budget,” Marcos said.

“I hope they would just put it for public. What is more ugrent than  the testing kit? Pambihira naman sila,” she added.

Binay lamented the lack of testing kits currently available in the country and pressed health officials how many testing kits can be bought from the P43 million being requested.

“Because I’m really concerned cause I am a parent of four kids. And it’s very important that we start with testing kits. If we will not test, we will not know how serious the problem,” Binay said. 

“I don’t want to panic, but you’re making me panic. Because from what we’re hearing now, you seemed not preparing in case we have local transmission, that it was even (Health) Secretary Duque who said it’s just a question of when na padating ito and then maririnig namin yon na we only have 2,000 testing kits out of 100 million population. Di ba parang hindi ba nakakatakot?” said  Binay.

Senator Christopher “Bong” Go said that testing kits should be made available in far-flung provinces for the effective containment of the virus.

“The virus will further spread due to the delay in release of results especially in Mindanao and Visayas. There should be testing kits in these areas and the results should be readily available to determine if one is positive,” Go said. 

Go said the delay in the results might cause panic.

Duque previously said that President Rodrigo Duterte had approved the supplemental budget “in principle.” He said more than  P2 billion would be for the procurement of protective gear for health workers and an additional P10 million would be for supplies of face masks in the country.

Duterte has already declared a state of public health emergency following the recommendation of  Duque.

The Philippines has so far confirmed 20 positive  cases of COVID-19 as of March 9.

Go, Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Health,  said he immediately recommended to the President the declaration of a State of Public Health Emergency to further intensify proactive measures against the spread of the virus in the country.

“We should be one step ahead. The President already signed the proclamation and later today, he will meet the Interagency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases including other government agencies and experts to discuss government response,” said Go. 

“We need a whole-of-soceity and  proactive approach in preventing the further spread of the virus in the country,” he said.

He noted that all government agencies and LGUs must render full  assistance and cooperation as well as mobilize the necessary resources to undertake critical, urgent and appropriate response measures in a timely manner to curtail and eliminate the COVID-19 threat.

Duque said the declaration of a state of public health emergency will “facilitate mobilization of resources, ease processes, including procurement of critical logistics and supplies, and intensifying reporting.”

To date, only the RITM is accredited by the WHO to test samples for COVID-19. 

The DOH said, however, that five more hospitals are already being capacitated to test samples for COVID-2019:  San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City, Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City, Baguio General Hospital in Baguio City, and Lung Center of the Philippines in Quezon City.

The DOH has also declared Code Red sublevel 1, which calls for intensified steps such as contact tracing, home quarantine for the close contacts of COVID-19-positive patients, improved hospital preparedness, and activation of other laboratories outside the RITM.

Senator Francis Tolentino called on local government units (LGU) to be vigilant following the increase in number of new coronavirus.

He said local  government units must mobilize all of their concerned offices and barangays to effectively monitor and address possible cases of COVID-19.

Based on his experience as the country’s former anti-disaster czar, Tolentino emphasized that the full cooperation of LGUs is crucial in solving any crisis.

Tolentino issued the call following reports about confirmed COVID-19 cases in San Juan, Taguig, Marikina and Quezon City.

Meanwhile, Tolentino has filed a resolution urging the Senate to conduct an inquiry in aid of legislation on the need to provide emergency stimulus package to cushion the effects of COVID-19 on the domestic tourism industry.

Tolentino stressed the need for the stimulus package since 80 percent of the tourism industry is made up of micro, small, and medium enterprises, which may not survive the tourism slump due to COVID-19.

“There is a need to assist the tourism industry not just to support the affected establishments, employers, and employees to maintain the country’s economic growth, but also to ensure that safety measures are in place to prevent the spread of the virus,” Tolentino said.

“The time to act is now before it becomes too late,” he added. /Stacy Ang

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