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Over the past few days, I have been interviewed by different media outlets. The country faces the greatest threat as we open our economy to the risk of a second wave of infections. The only protection we have is really to do mass testing for the private sector employees which will be paid for by their employers and not charged to the government.
No company will be forced to do this if they believe rapid testing is not good. They will just wait for PCR to become accessible. But many are concerned about the safety of their employees and, of course, those in the restaurant, business, for their customers. They also are developing their own testing strategy.
If a resurgence comes, then we will face another lockdown which will hurt our economy even more. The next lockdown might be more severe that even larger companies cannot take it. So testing is the only way, on top of social distancing, face mask, and other things we must do.
I believe the doctors who are questioning the private sector, and claiming that such testing is a waste of money and reliable think that there is no other alternative as we do not have RT-PCR capacity as we speak. However, Go Negosyo, in fact, flew a planeload of the first batch of RT-PCR equipment via C130 plane. This will help six government hospitals to increase the daily capacity by 7,000 swab testing.
In addition to initiating mass testing drives across key cities in the country, Project ARK is helping build automated laboratories and converting manual laboratories into modern, automated laboratory setups. The Project-ARK PCR laboratories will be fully equipped to carry out PCR swab testing and process results within 24 hours. Starting May 20, these laboratories will be built in Metro Manila, Cebu, Zamboanga, and other provinces.
This initiative will successfully increase the RT-PCR testing capacity of our government hospitals and select private hospitals. Through the collaborative effort of the Department of Health, Philippine Red Cross (PRC) and Go Negosyo partners, we are looking to increase capacity to 30,000 tests a day in 45 days. And hopefully, within the next three months, we will be able to do 50,000 tests a day. At this point in time, the government is trying to ramp up its PCR testing capability.
I would like to express my gratitude to Sec. Carlito Galvez Jr., Sec. Delfin Lorenzana, deputy chief implementer of COVID-19 response Vince Dizon, and private sector chief implementor for Project ARK- PCR Initiative Janette Garin for their help.
According to Garin, the goal is to make the swab testing price more affordable. That is why we have partnered with some government hospitals so that they can offer testing at less than P1,700 per PCR test. In this way, we will be able to make testing more accessible to everyone.
Since our launch a few months ago, Project ARK has also generated a total of 1,063,013 rapid test kits from 207 companies. This will be used both by our partner companies and the local government units. Cities such as Manila, Antipolo, Makati, and Quezon City have received rapid test kit donations from our project donors. I am glad that more and more LGUs are expressing their interest to join this initiative.
The aggressive use of rapid tests and RT-PCR swab tests is really needed given the low testing capacity of our country. This is the best way, for now, to further suppress the spread of the virus and ramp up the country’s testing capacity.
From recent reports, 160 members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) have tested positive for COVID-19 through rapid test since March. Imagine if those infected were not found immediately, they would have infected the President.
According to PSG Commander Colonel Jesus Durante III, all PSG personnel are being tested by RDT (rapid diagnostic test) every 15 days. If found positive, officers are confined and isolated for 15 days, and then subjected to another PCR test. This is the same strategy we recommend for our other communities.
I strongly believe that it is a way of protecting our businesses and the lives of our people. Testing gives us visibility and allows us to come up with more informed strategies on how we can combat the disease.
For example, if a business owner does not know who among his employees are infected, that is a far greater risk. This may even result in more damages and may place factories and plants under lockdown in the future. The private sector, I believe, would rather spend more money to ensure the safety and security of our people, rather than risk the health and future of the company.
We need both rapid testing and RT-PCR testing to make everything more efficient, and to give us a better view of the situation. I am glad that Sec. Sonny Dominguez is looking into the localization of the national action plan of the government against COVID-19 through the implementation of lockdowns at the barangay level. This is the right way. I am optimistic that Metro Manila will be placed under general community quarantine by June 1. We need to take the necessary steps to revive the economy now. It will be gradual as people and companies are still cautious about resuming operations.
Balancing buhay and kabuhayan is not easy that is why we must gradually and cautiously lift the lockdown and safely bring people back to work. This is what needs to be done to save lives as well as support the livelihoods of our MSMEs.
The selective barangay quarantine in tandem with aggressive rapid and PCR testing are the most sustainable approach to containing the virus and can be used continuously until a cure is found. That is our goal: to make testing accessible and affordable. Affordable testing, tracing, and treatment – this should be our marching orders if we want to keep the economy open.