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Editorial

Contact tracing fail

/ 05:08 AM April 01, 2021

What happens to those scraps of paper that people have to fill up with their contact information before they can set foot in any establishment? Does anyone read them at all? Better yet, are they collated into a data bank that health personnel can use to trace those who come into contact with individuals eventually found to be positive for COVID-19?

Once identified, these contacts and possible virus carriers should be isolated to prevent them from further transmitting the virus—a critical step in the test-trace-treat preventive scheme universally accepted as a way to control this global health crisis.

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However, despite the blizzard of contact tracing forms or QR codes now required everywhere, the government itself appears clueless on how to handle the collected information. Take it from presidential spokesperson Harry Roque: Contact tracing remains the “weakest link” in the government’s pandemic response—which is putting it mildly.

The alarming resurgence in cases in the last few weeks can in part be attributed to the massive failure of the government to put in place a functioning, rigorous, comprehensive contact-tracing system that would have ideally complemented the severe restrictions in mobility imposed on the populace.

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The return of the Greater Metro Manila area into enhanced lockdown, for instance, should allow for the intensified tracing of those exposed to positive individuals and their quick isolation to stem the further spread of infection — but only if the government had indeed done the spadework of establishing a national contact tracing database and funding an adequate network of contact tracers down to the community and barangay levels, especially in COVID-19 hotspots. Has it?

As it is, the public can’t be blamed for feeling that the endless quarantine now simply amounts to virtual imprisonment, without the required corresponding obligation on the part of government to offer the basics of containment: First, free mass testing, a clamor since the early days of the pandemic which the administration has reflexively dismissed (in a cratering economy with millions rendered jobless, how many can afford a swab test costing P3,000-P5,000?); and second, an exhaustive, honest-to-goodness contact-tracing system the way other countries have done it, thus helping them keep their COVID-19 cases down. The third part — treatment — is being borne heroically by the country’s valiant but stretched-out medical frontliners; it’s what needs to be done to prevent more people from landing at the hospital where the government has been abjectly remiss.

Current contact tracing efforts in the country have seriously deteriorated in the last four weeks, Baguio mayor and contact tracing “czar” Benjamin Magalong admitted during Tuesday’s hearing at the House of Representatives. From a contact tracing ratio of 1:7 — or seven contacts traced for every positive case, which is already far behind the original target ratio of “somewhere between 1:27 to 1:36” — the ratio has withered to 1:3. And those three contacts are most likely household members of the COVID-19 patient, meaning “technically, there was no contact tracing,” Magalong pointed out.

He noted that encoding issues may have discouraged local government units (LGUs) from using the data collection tools shared with them by the national government. Connectivity issues among the different contact tracing apps developed by private companies may be an issue as well. A year after the country’s first COVID-19 case, a joint congressional hearing in early March reported that there was still no unified contact-tracing system in the country.

In November last year, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) made the use of the StaySafe.ph contact tracing app mandatory for national government agencies and LGUs amid concerns about the privacy of the collected data.

A month later, the task force said all establishments, whether public or private, needed to use StaySafe.ph to obtain the government-required Safety Seal. Note that such attempts to put some semblance of coherence and organization into the contact-tracing work were done more than half a year after the pandemic had started, with community transmission by this time running uncontained.

On Monday, March 29, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) announced that the integration between the StaySafe.ph app and the LGUs’ respective contact-tracing apps will finally begin, with the StaySafe app turned over to the agency.

This means, the DILG added, that the contact tracing apps of other LGUs can now be interoperable with the StaySafe.ph app, which will be used as the primary contact tracing system in the country. Over a year into the pandemic, with deadly new variants complicating the picture and the health care system once again at breaking point, will the administration finally get contact tracing right?

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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TAGS: Benjamin Magalong, contact tracing, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, Editorial
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