"Alas, our Department of Health appears to be dragging its feet on the matter."
Who should be on top of the global fight against the dreaded COVID-19? It is no other than the World Health Organization (WHO), which has already adopted "Test, Test, Test" as its mantra in defeating the dreaded disease.
We're worried, however, that our very own Department of Health appears to be dragging its feet on the matter of accrediting more testing centers at the local level and procuring more test kits so that we can determine the actual number of infections, accelerate contact tracing and as experts say, ultimately flatten the curve.
We are well aware of the limitations of the DOH in so far as strengthening the health care infrastructure in the country is concerned. It's unfortunate that health seems to have never been among the top priority of every administration. Thus, health care at the municipal and barangay level is woefully inadequate. We understand that our legislators even slashed the proposed DOH for this year by so much.
We are now reaping the whirlwind of this misplaced sense of priorities with the current lack of hospital facilities, health professionals, health care equipment and supplies such as test kits and personal protective equipment (PPEs) for those at the frontline of the frantic effort to cope with a huge public health emergency.
Despite its own difficulties in coping with COVID-19, the Chinese government recently donated urgently-needed medical materials consisting of 100,000 test kits, 100,000 surgical masks, 10,000 N95 masks, and 10,000 sets of personal protective equipment to the Philippines. Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian said these materials lend a helping hand to the fight of the Philippine government and people against the epidemic.
While donations have been coming in droves from both local and foreign sources, the bureaucratic gridlock at the DOH hampers the early release of the badly-needed materials to those who need them. Among those that have been asking the DOH for more PPEs and N95 masks for its personnel is the Lung Center of the Philippines.
But here's the problem. The DOH has apparently imposed too many documentary requirements for donations. The donors should write a letter to Health Secretary Francisco Duque indicating their intention to make a donation. They should then list down items to be donated, such as medicine (good for at least 12 months, properly labeled with English texts) and medical equipment (detailed specifications plus unit cost). They should also indicate the projected delivery date and special handling requirements, whether cold chain or warehouse storage.
After donations are accepted by the DOH, the donors are told to submit these requirements to the COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center: 1) Deed of donation; 2) Packing list; 3) Actual Date of Delivery. The DOH added that it could add more requirements as “necessary.”
But how about those who want to avail themselves of donations? Apparently, you can't just go to the DOH and request for test kits and PPEs. You have to go through the same labyrinthine process imposed by the DOH for donations. The lack of urgency on the part of the DOH leadership to facilitate the release of donations of test kits and emergency medical materials may well be one of the reasons the number of COVID-19 cases is piling up.
The same snail pace in the DOH is also apparent in its failure to approve the opening of Marikina City's own testing laboratory. Mayor Marcelino Teodoro is already furious: “The DOH should not treat Marikina as a client applying for a license to operate a laboratory like this, but it should be a partnership. This is a whole-of-government approach where local and national agencies need to help one another.” The city was set on Monday (March 23) to start its own testing but the DOH said wait, we need to evaluate the laboratory first.
Mass testing is seen as crucial in the successful efforts of countries like South Korea to stem the spread of the virus, but testing here has been scarce—even as some politicians with no symptoms of the disease have been prioritized by the DOH.
The Chinese donation of 100,000 test kits has already been received by our Department of Foreign Affairs. The test kits consist of two types: nucleic acid testing, which is the primary detection method for the coronavirus in China and takes two to three hours, while the antibody testing method can screen patients within 15 minutes. However, antibody testing cannot replace nucleic acid testing, as it can only provide an auxiliary diagnosis for the negative cases detected by nucleic acid testing.
The DOH does not want the rapid test kits to be used here under less than ideal laboratory conditions. But the two types are not mutually exclusive but actually complement each other. The lateral flow method can be the initial test, and the PCR method can be used for the second and third tests, depending on need.
Our question is: Why do the DOH, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) all fear and loathe the mass distribution of the on-site or rapid test kits produced by China and other countries and already approved for use in China, South Korea and even the European Union?
If these rapid test kits are already in wide use in other countries, why is the DOH blocking the approval of the rapid test kits while the death rate from COVID-19 continues to soar?
We know that the whole DOH and all the agencies under it are now under tremendous pressure to effectively respond to the rapid spread of the disease. While we commend the efforts of government and private health professionals and support staff to perform their jobs over and beyond the call of duty, the DOH leadership must also remove the red tape that keeps them from acting fast on urgent needs.
The clock is ticking, and every second counts in the race against time to save as many lives as possible from an unseen but deadly enemy.
The DOH must get rid of what seems to be a rigid "Wait, Wait, Wait" policy in so far as approval of rapid test kits is concerned and instead follow what the WHO prescribes: "Test, Test, Test."