Test, test, test
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus issued a simple call of “test, test, test” last week, amid reports of more and more COVID-19 infections.
We only need to look at South Korea as an example where testing made a difference. Next to China, it had the most rapid increase of COVID-19 cases, until it began mass testing. More than 200,000 tests have been administered for free, using innovative ways including the well-publicized drive-in facilities.Mass testing allowed the government to identify those who are infected and then to do contact tracing, meaning checking on who may have been exposed, having them tested, too, and isolating and treating them if found positive.
South Korea’s new cases have been dropping now, even as the epidemic has erupted in most other countries. Testing, combined with social distancing, is also credited with controlled outbreaks in Singapore, Hongkong, and Taiwan. While China’s massive lockdown received the most attention in the press, its widespread testing was also important in bringing down infection rates.
Just for purposes of comparison, as of Feb. 28, 320,000 tests had been conducted in Guangdong, China, which has a population of 113 million, almost like the Philippines.
I was shocked as well to read in the South China Morning Post that in early March, Philippine government officials had expressed concern about their test kit supplies, which were only 2,000.
For any number of reasons, which will have to be told and analyzed when all this is over, we have gone too slowly on testing. For a long time now, we depended only on the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine for testing, which has been very limited. I have been looking for the total number of tests conducted, but even the Department of Health’s tracker is hopelessly outdated, and does not give the number of tests done.
What we do know is that unless you are a politician or celebrity, you will have to wait, literally, till you die before you get tested, or get the test results. I was so alarmed last week to read about patients in Mindanao who were tested, the results of which were produced only after the patients had died. That is alarming because it suggests, no, indicates that we have COVID-19 cases in Mindanao. But unless we have more tests, we won’t know where the outbreaks are, and who are being infected and exposed.
But as early as Feb. 5, the University of the Philippines-National Institutes of Health announced it had developed a local test. Right before the lockdown, there was a press conference announcing the tests would be available soon. As of last week, a newspaper report said the testing would be available by the end of March.
I’m not sure if I’m consoled by the announcement last Saturday by Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire that the Philippines’ average testing capacity was now “950 to 1,000 tests per day.”
We read about Chinese businessman Jack Ma offering a donation of 50,000 kits to the Philippines. News reports vary—some say the kits have arrived, some say only a partial shipment has come in. Meanwhile, I checked the Philippines’ Food and Drug Administration website and, as of Monday, there have been nine tests approved for use.
We do not need to do mass testing if we’re worried about the supplies, but we must maximize the testing in a way that gives us a better picture of the extent of infections and allows us to do more contact tracing.
We need to prioritize certain groups, especially health professionals. We lost three physicians last March 22 to COVID-19, and another one yesterday. Two of our large hospitals have more than a hundred doctors and nurses on quarantine because they were exposed to COVID-19 patients. Rapid tests can reduce risks of exposure, and also reduce the need for prolonged quarantine.
The point is that we need to test so we can be better guided with the measures needed to prevent, and to treat, infections. Note that the testing will be an important tool as well against the infodemic. Right now, we just keep hearing rumors about who has been infected, and in what geographical areas. With proper testing, we can stop the ridiculous lockdowns within lockdowns and go straight to attending to those with infections and effectively break more chains of transmission.
I promise I won’t just write about doom and gloom. Here’s another video about how Italians used music to honor their health workers and keep their spirits up: https://www.newyorker.com/video/watch/meet-the-italians-who-made-music-together-on-their-balconies
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