By JOHN PAUL NACION
MANILA – A group of public health advocates is calling on the Department of Health to revisit its proposed shift in the country’s pandemic response, where testing and contact tracing will no longer be a priority even as the number of new COVID-19 infections continue to soar.
Earlier this week, the health department said it would be “shifting” its strategy away from detecting and tracing cases and would instead focus on so-called “impactful activities” such as monitoring of patients who are in home isolation, to name a few. Detecting and tracing cases, health officials added, are “impractical” and a “waste of resources.”
“Contact tracing is not that much prioritized anymore because we know in each household, the possibility or the likelihood that there is one positive individual is very high,” Health Undersecretary Ma Rosario Vergeire told the media in a briefing.
Testing, however, the Coalition for People’s Right to Health said, “remains as the vital link to the rest of the public health strategies of contact tracing and isolation, in order to truly mitigate the spread of more infectious variants like Omicron in communities.”
On January 13, the Philippines recorded an all-time high of 34,021 new cases, bringing the total number of infections to nearly 3.1 million.
This year, the health department’s epidemiology and disease surveillance program is set to receive P113 million (US$2.26 million). This is 33 percent lower than last year’s P158.6 million ($3.18 million) budget, and even way lower than the allocation set for this program before the pandemic.
“From insisting that the public’s call for free, accessible and mass testing is ‘irrational,’ to irrationally locking down the unvaccinated, health authorities and agencies leading the pandemic response continue to frame a public health issue into an individual responsibility,” said the CPRH.
Fewer days for isolation
The CPRH also said the supposed shift in the pandemic response will be implemented alongside the adoption of fewer days for isolation for COVID-19 patients who are considered asymptomatic or those having mild symptoms.
This policy stems from the United States’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent announcement, which the Philippine government sought to adopt. The CPRH said this “dangerously shortens isolation and quarantine for health workers, is an abandonment of its responsibility to the people and their right to health.”
In an earlier statement, Cristy Donguines, president of the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center Employees Union-AHW, said that the shortened isolation may lead to a spread of infection among their ranks and even to their patients.
“The recent surge among our ranks is a strong indication that we are still very vulnerable to the new Omicron variant in spite of the fact that we are fully vaccinated and even have booster shots already. Worse, if we are asymptomatic, DOH denies us the right to be tested even if we are exposed to the virus. As we are exposed to the virus, they force us to work instead of letting us be quarantined,” she said.
“We have reached these dire conditions because of health system neglect; now is not the time to further abandon the people’s health. The ‘whole-of-government approach’ has resulted in what can only be a whole-of-government failure to address the pandemic and its root causes,” said the CPRH.
Going after the unvaxxed
Instead of addressing the pandemic, the CPRH said the government has opted to go after the unvaccinated, with the president himself ordering for their arrests. Of late, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) is planning to enforce a “no vaccine, no ride” policy for public transportation in Metro Manila, which is now under Alert Level 3.
However, the Commission on Human Rights disagreed, saying this may “restrict the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights,” which include procuring essentials.
CPRH reiterated its proactive and grounded solution under its Dapat LAPAT campaign that calls for free and accessible testing and treatment, immediate contact tracing and disease surveillance, more efficient and wider vaccination, financial support during and after quarantine, and the improvement of the health system capacity. (JJE, RVO)