As the Covid-19 Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) over Luzon nears its end, House Ways and Means Chair Joey Sarte Salceda (Albay 2nd District) has called for mandatory mas testing for persons under investigation (PUIs), as well as more intensive contact tracing of people they have intermingled with by local government units (LGUs).
“We need to do 200,000 tests before we can entertain any thought of lifting the lockdown. Our Intensive Care Units (ICU) capacity also needs to be increased to 20,000,” said Salceda, who added that mass testing will allow government decision makers to prioritizes key areas for intervention.
He has also requested the Interagency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) to prepare for “waves of active infection” which could overwhelm the public health sector if left unanticipated. “While we have done 11,466 COVID-19 tests, we are far from the minimum with a capacity for only 1,500 per day with all labs in already,” he added.
A noted economist, and a known emergency and disaster risk reduction expert, Salceda and his team have independently been consulting with professionals in disease “outbreak science” and continuously monitoring various simulations on the COVID-19 pandemic. He was the first in Congress to call for a lockdown in the early days of the outbreak.
The lawmaker said his team has seen conservative simulations and observed “simulations similar to what Governor Cuomo of New York has often cited, where they think some 40% of the population may get infected. Estimates range from several thousands to a few millions. “We don’t treat them like gospel truth, but based evolving trends, there are two key observations that appear in all the simulations. One, ECQ works to a significant degree, but two, it is not feasible to do it forever.”
“We will have to lift the ECQ at some point, but we cannot afford to lift it at our current testing rate, otherwise we would be forced to reimpose it again. Doing so prematurely would have graver consequences – harder to reboot the economy, more time before we can recover, and limited scope for future growth,” he pinted out.
“Mass testing is thus essential. I understand that we can’t do it for the entire population, but we can begin random testing, and contact tracing of those who are positive by the LGUs concerned. We need that data for sound decision-making,” he stressed.
Salceda said he understands the constraints such as insufficient test kits and testing centers. “but we have to address those constraints, instead of saying that because of them. we will not do mass testing. We granted the President emergency powers precisely for that purpose,” he emphasized.
Salceda also asked the Department of Health to make hospitals more capable of intensive care. “There are only 1,600 mechanical ventilators nationwide. Based on the latest models predicting the infection levels, we may reach 20,000 severe active cases needing ICU care on the same day. Hopefully not, but let’s be better prepared. We need to procure more of them soon, import them if necessary, so we can buy time for our local inventors and manufacturers to ramp up local production,” he added.
The vital House committee chair likewise proposes several measures to follow a graduated lifting of ECQ, but says such decisions can be made more effective with data from mass testing. His other proposed measures include: 1) Extension of the President’s emergency powers on certain aspects, in quarterly increments, as necessary to carry out a recovery plan;
2) Aggressive expansion of intensive care facilities through expedited procurement of ventilators and other necessary medical supplies, and ensure the PPE needs of all health care workers and relevant frontliners to maintain their efficacy; 3) Extension of the lockdown in increments of 15 days, depending on the health outcomes;
4) Identification of high-risk locations (due to prevalence of co-morbidities, risky age profile, and dense households) for intensified interventions and surveillance, which includes (a) intensive barangay-level surveillance, monitoring, and observation, (b) continued subsidies and nutritional support for high-risk, contained areas, and (c) establishing isolation centers for PUIs in high-risk areas;
5) Consider class suspension in schools for the rest of the year, and facilitate arrangements based on the implications of such suspension. 6) Intensified sanitation and disinfection of areas where cases have been identified or confirmed (Wuhan-style disinfection of streets, common areas, and other facilities);
7) Resumption of government work post-lockdown, except for employees above 60 years of age, or with risky pre-existing conditions; 8) Resumption of private work post-lockdown except for those above 60 years of age, or with risky pre-existing conditions; 9) Sustained social distancing measures in areas where work has resumed;
10) Facilitation of work-from-home arrangements wherever possible (under proper guidelines, and ensured maintenance of internet infrastructure), and full resumption od off-site operations; and 11) Allowing logistics-based sales (i.e. increasing capacity of GrabDelivery and delivery service providers, instead of people congregating in brick-and-mortar shops and malls).
“If we treat this obtaining situation as war, we have to know where the enemy is. That’s the benefit of mass testing. We also have to ramp up the capacity of treatment and isolation centers because that’s where the battle to save lives really happens. All these are necessary while we restore as much normalcy as possible to the economy – because we can’t fight a serious war without a war chest,” Salceda pointed out.