Health Dept. gives COVID-19 testing ‘courtesy’ to officials involved in nat’l security, public health

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 23) — The Health department denied speculation that it prioritizes VIPs in testing for COVID-19, but admitted it gives “courtesy” to certain officials when it comes to testing for the viral disease.

“The DOH assures the public that there is no policy for VIP treatment and that all specimens are being processed on a first-in, first-out basis with courtesy accorded to officials holding positions of national security and public health,” the department said Monday in a statement.

The statement came in the wake of public criticism for the testing given to President Rodrigo Duterte, members of the presidential family, Cabinet members, and a number of senators even if they do not exhibit virus symptoms.Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III and Senator Francis Tolentino cleared the air on their use of limited test kits for the novel coronavirus after they received backlash online.

Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III and Senator Francis Tolentino cleared the air on their use of limited test kits for the novel coronavirus after they received backlash online.

Sotto admitted he first used a coronavirus test kit that was not accredited by the Department of Health nor the Food and Drug Administration, despite the warnings of health officials. He said the "instant" test was administered by his friend.

"The testing kit is different from what the DOH is using right now. I know that a number of PUIs need the DOH-approved test kits more," he said in a Facebook post, referring to patients under investigation.

After the first test came out negative, he went for a confirmatory test, this time using a kit from the DOH after he began exhibiting dry cough and sore throat. He clarified he is still awaiting test results — stressing he is not given VIP treatment.

"It's been a week now and to clarify this, I haven't received the results as I never asked to be prioritized," he stressed.

Tolentino said his test kit did not come from the DOH, but did not specify which test he took. He said he decided to take the test after being exposed to a person who tested positive for COVID-19, then exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

"My colds and dry cough had persisted during my self-quarantine period, thus I took the test after my self cough medication appeared insufficient after four days," he said in a Facebook post.

The lawmaker also apologized after he posted on Facebook that he received the COVID-19 test in his private space.

"If I came out positive, I would have posted it as well... My apologies to those offended," he wrote.

The FDA has cautioned the public against the use of unregistered testing kits as the quality and accuracy of the results cannot be guaranteed. It has only approved eight COVID-19 tests for commercial use, but the DOH said the tests still need to be brought to accredited laboratories for processing.

DOH recently revised its guidelines as to who can get tested for COVID-19 even if they do not exhibit virus symptoms. Health spokesperson Ma. Rosario Vergeire said before the protocol was revised, the government officials passed the criteria, such as showing flu-like symptoms, exposure to positive cases, or travel to areas with local transmission.

Under the revised DOH protocol, only patients who are exhibiting severe symptoms are tested. For those with mild symptoms, tests are conducted only if they are high risk individuals such as senior citizens and pregnant women.

COVID-19 has infected 380 people in the Philippines, with 25 of them dying because of the disease caused by a virus called SARS CoV-2. Seventeen of those infected have recovered.

Globally, over 339,000 have been infected and 14,705 have died because of the viral disease. Over 98,000 have recovered.

The disease is spread through small droplets from the nose or mouth when people infected with the virus cough or sneeze.

To prevent infection, authorities are urging people to practice regular hand washing, cover their mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and avoid close contact with those who show respiratory symptoms.

Commonly reported COVID-19 symptoms are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. Those with severe and critical symptoms should call the Health Department at (02) 8-651-7800 local 1149-1150.

CNN Philippines correspondent Joyce Ilas contributed to this report.