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It took us two and a half months to get to general community quarantine (GCQ). We had a total of five resets. By and large, we had one of the longest lockdowns in the world. Yet, I believe the lockdown on March 15 was one of the best decisions of the administration which paved the way for our government to scale up healthcare facilities, especially quarantine centers.
With the absence of a cure or a vaccine, we are left with testing and isolating the affected as the most effective strategy to combat the spread of COVID-19. With testing, we can achieve greater visibility of the enemy and develop a more effective response. Test, test, test, and isolate is the only way to save the jobs and livelihoods of our Filipino people.
Since the launch of Project ARK last April, we have partnered with more than 430 companies who have expressed readiness to test their employees for free and take control of their own health situation. We have also raised close to 1.9 million rapid test kits, automated and activated 11 government hospitals, adding 12,000 RT-PCR testing capacity per day.
Massive targetted rapid testing is the first step to reclaiming economic freedom. Fortunately, the cost of rapid test kits has been brought down to P450, so we can expect more brands to lower their prices, which will increase the number of tests per day.
Project ARK, which has led numerous mass testing efforts using RT-PCR tests and rapid test kits, is proud to have tested 107,782 individuals to date, with private companies carrying out 66,617 tests and local government units (LGUs) partners finishing 41,665 tests. These were just the first batch since we expect more tests and results in the coming months. We have to continue testing millions of people because that’s the only way to create visibility.
There was a debate to test only the symptomatic patients — and not asymptomatic — using rapid test kits due to limited RT-PCR capacity. However, the results from the private sector show that if we did not test the asymptomatic group, then this could have escalated to a worse situation. But, the initial data from the first batch of results from the private sector and LGUs showed that 2.2 percent were IgG positive, 0.1 percent were IgM positive, and the other 1.4 percent tested IgG/IgM positive. The rest of the 94.7 percent of the asymptomatic individuals tested were negative. The data shows that it is important that we test not only symptomatic individuals, but also the asymptomatic as well.
With this, I encourage the private sector to test every 14 days. This is our duty to our workers to provide them the security of a safe workplace. The data from these tests will be critical in developing further strategies to contain COVID-19 in our respective factories and offices.
Last Tuesday, during our Go Negosyo Balik Kabuhayan webinar, we highlighted the importance of mass testing as a way to keep the health situation under control and accelerate economic recovery.
I was joined by Rep. Joey Salceda, ARK-PCR private sector chief implementor Rep. Janette Garin, PAASE president Gisela Concepción, PCMC COVID-19 Testing Laboratory head Dr. Raymundo W. Lo, Josephine Gotianun-Yap, Project ARK medical team leader Dr. Minguita Padilla, and Karen Davila.
I’d like to recognize the hard work of Rep. Garin who shares our vision of making testing affordable, available, and accessible. She said, “Ideally from P1,500 to P2,000, we aim to further reduce the cost of testing to P350 to P375 by the end of July via pooled testing. Pooled PCR testing allows us to balance health and economy. It will optimize the availability of test kits, reduce the workload of laboratory staff.”
Garin continues, “When a workplace becomes infected or exposed, operations have to be suspended. This means loss of income, a difficult life, small businesses will close down. When health meets the economy, when testing fills the gap in making social distancing, hygiene practices, and other new normal behaviors more effective, we can co-exist with COVID.”
Dr. Lo also shared progress on an ongoing study by the Philippine Society of Pathologists Inc. to significantly increase the country’s testing capacity through pooled testing. He reported that they are in the first phase of the study that will determine which sample pool of five, 10, 20 is sensitive enough. “As soon as the results are available we can roll out to other laboratories to dramatically increase capacity,” he said. “Pool testing can definitely be a game-changer because it will lower costs, speed up reporting, and (increase the capacity) to test possibly 10 times or more the current capacity of our labs.”
The more we test our Filipino people, the more we can detect where the virus is. We have also tapped Joji Gotianun-Yap, for the centralization of all the data gathered. The combined testing results from the private sector and the LGUs will be consolidated to a central group, Thinking Machines. The idea is eventually to map out the entire Philippines into green, red, and yellow zones so consumers will have the confidence to go out.
The webinar also served as a platform where we looked at the overall health management amidst the pandemic and the core elements necessary to succeed such as health safety measures, testing, data mapping, tracing, and health infrastructure. The only way we prevent closing down the economy is by creating visibility.