The Duterte administration aims to test at least two million Filipinos for the coronavirus and reach an ideal testing capacity of 50,000 COVID-19 tests a day, even as officials clarified earlier pronouncements that the government lacks resources to conduct mass testing.
To reach the goal of testing 2 percent of the country's population, testing capacity should be more than the current government goal of 30,000 daily tests, COVID-19 response deputy chief Vince Dizon told a Senate hearing.
"Right now the benchmark is between 1 to 2 percent of the population, but it is important to note that we need to test more in epicenters like the National Capital Region," Dizon said.
"The goal should be able to build up capacity to test up to 2 percent of the population, we are looking at 2 million in total and to be able to test up to 10 percent in the National Capital Region, which is our epicenter and in order to do that we need to ramp up testing capacity up to 50,000 tests per day," he said.
So far, the government has not hit its target of 30,000 tests a day by the end of May.
At 50,000 tests a day, it would take 40 days to test two million people for the virus.
Meanwhile, Malacañang said the government is hoping to test 1.5 to 2 percent of the country’s population of 110 million.
The government’s target would be between 1,650,000 to 2,200,000 tests as the government has so far tested 207,823 unique individuals, which is a measly 0.19 percent of the country’s total population.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said his earlier statement that “the government has no plans to conduct mass testing” was “taken out of context” as he said the government is now doing “expanded testing.”
Health Undersecretary Ma. Rosario Vergeire also said the government is engaged in expanded COVID-19 testing rather than mass testing.
“What we are doing right now is expanded testing and we are testing the vulnerable and severe cases. We have since expanded it to include those with mild symptoms,” Vergeire said.
Despite more tests and hundreds of thousands of test kits made available through government purchases and donations, the Department of Health has reported over 200 new coronavirus cases daily over the last five days, indicating that the country is far from flattening the curve of the disease.
The number of new cases reported by the DOH from May 15 to 19 are, in daily order, 214, 215, 208, 205, and 22.
However, Roque said no country in the world will test every citizen amid calls for the government to conduct mass testing to determine the magnitude of the outbreak.
He also said it would be physically impossible to test all 110 million Filipinos.
“What we are doing is we’re trying to follow the best examples that we have and right now we’re trying to follow the footsteps of South Korea, and that is why the goal is to test 1.5 to 2 percent of the total population,” Roque said.
With infections showing no signs of stopping and a vaccine yet to be developed, health experts contend that mass testing—which experts say is identifying and isolating clusters and cases—would prove to be one of the quicker, more efficient ways to help curb the spread of the disease.
Speaking to CNN Philippines, global health expert Dr. Sanjay Gupta explained that most places around the world, including the country, are still under the "mitigation phase"—or only plainly dealing with the presence of the virus.
Measures, however, would have to be ramped up if countries seek to get to the "containment phase"—or identifying where the virus is spreading at the moment.
"Ultimately, we want to be in containment phase, and that means basically trying to put a box around the virus and contain it," Gupta said.
Government data showed that as of May 13, the country had conducted a total of 189,469 tests on 184,857 individuals. From May 8 to 13, the average of conducted tests was 7,809 tests per day.
Roque claimed that the Philippines has stringent measures when it comes to testing its returning citizens, adding the government requires all returning Filipinos to take a PCR-based test, unlike other nations that are only testing those who are symptomatic.
Assistant Minority Leader and ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro slammed Roque’s statements that put the burden of testing on the private sector.
"The World Health Organization itself said that mass testing is key in containing COVID-19. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque admitted that government still has no plans to conduct mass testing as government eases restrictions in the community quarantine and workers return to their offices revealing that this administration still has no comprehensive and systematic medical solution in combating this virus after two months of the enhanced community quarantine," Castro said.
Castro said targeting 2 percent of the population for testing will not be enough especially with its snail-paced response.
Government should target mass testing and not just a percent of the population. Mass testing targets all suspected and probable cases, senior citizens, and those with pre-existing conditions and people in high-risk communities.
"Identifying positive cases is the first step in combating this virus. We must be able to swiftly identify and isolate suspected, probable and confirmed COVID-19 patients and inform all those who they may have had contact with to also isolate and monitor their health for symptoms. These, of course, will not be effective if the Duterte administration continues its sluggish response, make more excuses of how it cannot implement mass testing, and not listen to the people's demands," Castro added.
Castro said President Rodrigo Duterte should stop blaming local government units (LGUs) and his critics, stop passing its primary responsibility to the people to the private sector and realize that because of his administration's slow response and neglect for adequate medical solutions, the country has not been able to control the widespread of the virus.
"The Duterte administration was already given additional powers to ensure medical solutions to combat COVID-19 and strengthen the public health system,” she said.
Community quarantines alone will not stop the spread of COVID-19, she said.
Former Anakpawis party-list Rep. Ariel Casilao also slammed the government’s failure to effectively respond to the pandemic, saying the modified enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) would be useless without mass testing.
“Clearly, the Duterte regime failed to effectively respond to the pandemic after the two-month lockdown, as it denied the people’s demand for a medical solution last March, primarily mass testing. This blunder is price-tagged with the 0.2 percent contraction in the gross domestic product,” Casilao said.
Moreover, he said that it was clear that the Duterte administration is now passing the buck of mass testing and transportation to the private sector, as it did to the local government units during the early part of the lockdown.