Up to private sector to carry out mass testing, Roque says amid limited testing capacity

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 18) – Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Monday that the government still has no plans to carry out mass testing to detect COVID-19 infections in the country, adding that authorities will leave such efforts in the hands of private businesses.

"As much as possible, ini-increase natin ang capacity ng testing kaya nga we're aiming na aabot tayo sa 30,000 (a day), pero in terms sa mass testing na ginagawa ng Wuhan na all 11 million (residents), wala pa pong ganyang programa at iniiwan natin 'yan sa pribadong sektor," Roque said in a Malacañang press briefing.

[Translation: As much as possible, we are raising our testing capacity that's why we're aiming that we reach 30,000 (a day), but in terms of mass testing like what is being done by Wuhan where they're testing all 11 million residents, we don't have a similar program and we're leaving it to the private sector.]

Calls for mass testing have been rampant on social media since March, when the Department of Health confirmed local transmission of the disease. Authorities earlier rejected the idea, but later implemented what they call a "progressive" COVID-19 testing program" which prioritizes people with severe flu-like symptoms, the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions, pregnant women with mild symptoms, and healthcare workers with respiratory symptoms.

Companies have organized Project ARK or Antibody Rapid Test Kits, which has raised 1 million test kits for the use of barangays as well as for workers looking to return to work.

LIST: Who can be tested using rapid COVID-19 test kits?

"We cannot hide from the virus forever. We have guidelines on how to go back to work... For asymptomatics, government will not test muna kasi nga wala pang kakayahan, kulang pa nag PCR (tests) kaya tumutulong kami," Project ARK medical team chief Dra. Minguita Padilla said. She added that the private sector has also procured additional reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction or RT-PCR kits and machines to be installed in government-run hospitals to boost capacity.

PCR tests are said to be the gold standard as these detect the presence of the actual coronavirus in swab samples.

READ: Expert says PH must expedite mass testing with both rapid and PCR tests

Several local government units have also initiated local testing as they hope to reduce infections within communities.

The Department of Labor and Employment also published an advisory on Monday, which requires all employers, contractors and subcontractors to "shoulder the cost of COVID-19 prevention and control measures" such as testing, disinfection, proper training of workers, and protective gear for their workers. This is to ensure that employees will bear none of these expenses.

"We know that businesses have suffered so much, but for the sake of our economy we encourage them to dig deeper into their vast reserve of charity and benevolence so that their workers and the communities can continue to further weather this crisis that we are all facing and fighting together," Secretary Silvestre Bello III said in a statement.

TIMELINE: The COVID-19 response money trail

A separate DOLE notice also appeals to business owners to allow work-from-home and other alternative arrangements when possible to limit the exposure of laborers. In return, the order allows adjustments on wages and wage-related benefits as agreed upon by both worker and management for up to a six-month period.

Roque earlier admitted that the Philippines was slow to roll out testing efforts as government missed its original target to expand the capacity of local laboratories to run at least 8,000 tests per day by April 30. That goal has been raised to 30,000 daily tests by end-May.

READ: Companies willing to test own employees to boost PH mass testing capacity – DTI

The country's 30 testing laboratories can currently process up to 14,500 samples per day – barely half the month-end target, according to the national task force on COVID-19. Four mega swabbing centers and quarantine facilities have also been set up to cater to probable and even confirmed patients experiencing mild symptoms, in a bid to declog hospitals.

There are currently 12,513 confirmed cases in the country as of Sunday afternoon, of which 9,054 are active cases, 2,635 have recovered, and 824 died.

The government imposed a two-month lockdown in most of Luzon, which has stretched on to two more weeks for Metro Manila, the epicenter of the local outbreak. Restrictions were partially eased beginning May 16 as the state hoped to reopen the economy as businesses went dark.

The World Health Organization has recommended all nations to "test, test, test" to combat the coronavirus, as early detection would allow patients to be isolated and treated to prevent further infections. Roque earlier said the government wants to run at least 2.2 million rapid tests and 900,000 PCR tests. He adds they need to test at least 1 percent of the country's population.