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As COVID-19 cases continue to climb, mass testing calls resurface anew

By NICK GARCIA Published Jan 04, 2022 4:35 pm

As the country’s number of daily COVID-19 infections continue to increase, calls yet again for more and aggressive testing measure are gaining ground.

The Department of Health (DOH) reported today (Jan. 4) 5,434 new cases and a 26.2% positivity rate, up from the previous 20%. The positivity rate is the proportion of those who tested positive out of the total tested. The DOH said that 83.6% of those who tested positive were mild or asymptomatic.

House Deputy Minority Leader Carlos Zarate has urged the administration to “implement the much inadequate, even delayed, but still crucial free COVID mass testing,” as well as “pro-active contact tracing as well as faster and more efficient vaccine roll out."

"We strongly call on President (Rodrigo) Duterte to finally listen to the oft repeated but unheeded call for free mass testing because the COVID surges are becoming a vicious cycle," Zarate said in a statement.

But the country's testing czar Vince Dizon said the government will be sticking with “risk-based” COVID-19 testing, or only conducting tests for those with symptoms and those who have been exposed to positive cases.

“Paulit-ulit po naming sinasabi, limitado po ang ating resources,” Dizon said in a Jan. 3 Laging Handa briefing. “Imaginin ninyo, sa 100,000 COVID-19 tests at P2,000 a day, P200 million po agad ang ilalabas ng gobyerno."

Last September, the government had set plate-based reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests at P3,360 for private laboratories and P2,800 for public labs.

Acting presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles told ANC that the government is mulling over reassessing the prices of COVID-19 tests, “If the technology gets better and we’re able to access that technology for here.” 

The Department of Budget and Management, meanwhile, has said that the country's record-high P5-trillion national budget for 2022 would include funds for the procurement of COVID-19 testing kits, booster shots, hiring of medical frontliners, among other pandemic responses.

DOH data showed that about 192,000 tests have been conducted from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. Of that figure during the same period, 20,305 test results turned out positive. The country's cumulative tests stood at 25.2 million.

Antigen tests vs. rapid tests

There are two types of tests, an antigen test and an RT-PCR test. In an antigen or "rapid" test, an individual makes use of a pregnancy test-like kit that yields results within minutes. While the process can churn out more results, it’s prone to displaying false positives.

In an RT-PCR test, however, lab technicians study the virus’s generic material in detail. But while it’s more accurate, the complicated process is not only more expensive but also takes more time, resulting in fewer test results in a matter of hours to even days.

With testing inaccuracies having a higher price to pay, the DOH on Jan. 3 reiterated that COVID-19 antigen tests should only be used for symptomatic patients, close contacts, and those with history of exposure in areas with outbreaks.

Last Dec. 30, DOH Health Promotion Bureau Director Beverly Ho told reporters the agency’s stance on the matter.

“Since the beginning, we have always emphasized the benefits and limitations of antigen test,” Ho said. “As of this time, there is no reason to change our guidelines…as these have been crafted with the previously stated context in mind.”

The United States’ Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) also reminded the public that antigen tests may not detect the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

The Philippines has already detected 14 Omicron variant cases, including three local ones.

Still, top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said antigen tests may still come in handy.

"The tests are still worthwhile. Don't let anybody think that the FDA was saying that tests are no longer good,” CNN quoted Fauci as saying in its Dec. 29 report. “They say they're less sensitive now. They never were 100% sensitive.”

The U.S. had announced plans to distribute 500 million at-home test kits to Americans.

Antigen testing efforts

Baguio for one is planning to distribute at-home antigen test kits in the city this week to further speed up and detection of COVID-19 cases.

“Aside from expediting testing, self-tests work to reduce the chances of spreading the virus,” the city said in a Jan.2 statement, “as infected persons could undertake their own tests in the comforts of their homes without having to go to health facilities which exposes other people to the health risk.”

"Our city could be the pilot site for this do-it-yourself testing kits that are widely used in the US, Canada, Europe, and Singapore," Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong also said.

The Department of Transportation (DOTr), meanwhile, will also do random testing among consenting and volunteering train passengers.

"The random antigen testing of consenting and volunteering passengers is intended to guide us in the adoption of any further needed measures,” DOTr Usec. TJ Batan said. “Passengers who volunteer to be tested will be permitted to proceed with their trip after testing and will be informed of their test results by text message.”

The DOTr added that it has also required all rail personnel to undergo antigen testing, with on-site work limited to 60% capacity and all rail lines operating up to 70%.

The local FDA on Oct. 6 had said that it once reached out to the DOH on whether at-home antigen test kits will be allowed in a bid to ramp up mass testing.

The DOH has no policy yet on the suggestion, though Dizon said it "is being studied by our experts."

Some 50 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated as of Dec. 31, 2021, four million short of the 54 million target.

Galvez said the target may be met within January 2022, if not during the first quarter.