Marikina keen on starting local COVID-19 tests​, but DOH says lab still not 100% compliant

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​The Department of Health denies delaying Marikina City's plan to operate a local COVID-19 testing center, and warned against starting tests this week as the city laboratory is still not fully compliant with government standards.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 14) — Marikina City will open its own COVID-19 testing center this Friday even without accreditation from the Department of Health, Mayor Marcelino "Marcy" Teodoro has insisted.

Teodoro said Tuesday that the city's testing laboratory located inside a new two-storey building in Barangay Concepcion Uno will start testing swab samples for COVID-19 this week, ​insisting "local autonomy" allows it.

He cited the "general welfare" provision under Section 15 of the Local Government Code for his refusal to wait for the DOH to accredit their facility.

"Hindi nila (DOH) binibigay 'yung license to operate, pero ang tanong ko ay ito: may krisis e, kailangan pa ba 'yun?," Teodoro told CNN Philippines' Balitaan.

"Namamatay ang mga tao, hindi nila nate-test. Walang kapasidad, kulang na kulang ang testing center sa bansa, malinaw 'yan... Minabuti naming magkaroon ng initiative dahil dumadami ang kaso namin ng COVID-19 dito sa Marikina at malaking kasalanan sa tao, tingin ko, kung saan wala kang gagawin."

[Translation: DOH is refusing to give us a license to operate. We're in crisis mode, do we still need that? People are dying without getting tested. There's little capacity and we lack testing centers in the country, that's clear. We took this initiative because COVID-19 cases in Marikina are increasing and I think it's a huge offense to our people if we don't do anything about it.]

Teodoro earlier said that local officials have asked the Health Department to inspect the new location for the laboratory, but said they have not yet gotten word from authorities. The agency rejected the city's earlier proposals.

A team of DOH inspectors arrived to check the testing center shortly after Teodoro's announcement ​on Tuesday, but he said that the group did not provide him any feedback except for reminders about procedure — that an inspection report must be submitted and findings must be identified before a license can be given.

He gave a Friday deadline for DOH to share any recommendations or changes they want done to the facility, saying there's a need for authorities to cut the red tape and respond with urgency.

DOH Spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said during the agency's daily briefing that the agency was not sitting on its hands in processing applications for testing centers, but pointed out that the Marikina lab is only between 80-90 percent completed.

"Naiintindihan po namin ang inyong kagustuhan na mapabilis ang proseso ng testing sa inyong lugar, ngunit ang hindi pagsunod sa tamang proseso ay magdudulot po ng undue harm sa inyong mamamayan," Vergeire said, pointing out that the laboratory personnel in the city have not yet attended a required course on manning and securing the testing center. She added that the session would be available by next Monday the earliest.

"Hindi po ang DOH ang nang-iipit sa inyo. Kami po ay kaalyado niyo sa laban na ito," Vergeire added, denying that the DOH did not cooperate with the city's request to assess their newest laboratory site.

[Translation: We understand why you want to fast-track the local testing in your area, but failure to abide by the proper procedure would cause undue harm to residents. DOH is not putting you in a tight siutation. We are your allies in this battle.]

Under DOH rules, all COVID-19 tests must be done by doctors or licensed medical practitioners. Vergeire suggested that the city government should send samples of suspected patients to any of the 15 testing centers which have been accredited by the DOH while the local facility awaits its own license.

State of the art

Teodoro insisted that Marikina's testing laboratory is beyond the standards set by authorities. The city has two PCR machines and can process up to 400 samples daily, while a molecular pathologist is always on duty to run tests.

"Mga expert ang nagtayo ng laboratoryong ito... Mas maganda pa itong aming palisidad kaysa sa RITM (Research Institute for Tropical Medicine) kapag nakikita ng marami," the mayor said, adding that he sees no reason for the DOH to stop their operations. 

The city government also signed a deal with the Manila HealthTek, Inc., which produces the rapid test kits designed by scientists from the University of the Philippines, to buy 3,000 additional test kits for the city. This is on top of an initial batch of 3,000 kits acquired by city hall. So far, the city can run 7,000 tests, Teodoro said.

Rapid test kits can process swab samples in 15 minutes, but current DOH protocols require that samples should still be tested using the more accurate method that makes use of PCR machines to validate the results.

​Two dedicated ambulance units have also been assigned to the testing center, saying health workers can get swab samples from suspected COVID-19 patients in the hospital or even inside their homes, which will then be processed and assessed in the Marikina lab.

Teodoro bared plans to start local mass testing in Marikina last month, saying that he intends to share the laboratory with other local government units.

Health officials previously called on local executives to coordinate with the DOH before "acquiring, purchasing and utilizing testing kits within their respective territorial jurisdictions," as more towns and cities wanted to do their own tests because bprocessing was slow when these were centralized at RITM. Select public and private hospitals have been accredited to also conduct tests.

DOH has rejected Teodoro's plan to set up the testing laboratory either on the sixth floor of the Marikina City Health Office or inside the state-run Amang Rodriguez Memorial Medical Center, saying these locations did not pass space and biosafety standards.

On March 30, Teodoro said the free-standing structure along Bayan-Bayanan Avenue will now be hosting the city's own laboratory. DOH Spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire has said that a mixed-use building could increase the risk of infections, especially if there are lapses in protocol inside the laboratory.

There were 59 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Marikina as of Monday afternoon. Six patients have recovered while 14 have died from the disease.

Valenzuela, Pasig, Manila, and Quezon City have also announced mass testing in their areas as infections continue to rise despite the Luzon-wide lockdown by partnering with laboratories which have already been licensed by DOH.