UST experts: Metro Manila needs to do 15,000 tests daily to contain COVID-19 spread

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 27) — Metro Manila will need to conduct 15,000 coronavirus tests a day, as well as have 1,800 contact tracers to curb the COVID-19 outbreak, according to two scholars from the University of Santo Tomas.

Contact tracing staff must work “in call centers scattered throughout the region, to control its local pandemic,” Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P. and Associate Professor Bernhard Egwolf said in a briefing paper posted Tuesday on the UST website. The paper will be submitted for a peer review.

The Department of Health has not yet replied to CNN Philippines regarding the latest on Metro Manila’s daily testing capacity.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire on Monday confirmed the country's estimated testing capacity is at 32,000 tests daily for 42 laboratories, but the actual testing capacity is only between 8,500 and 9,500 a day.

Public health authorities must particularly focus on containing the outbreak in Manila and Quezon City, the UST scientists pointed out. Despite the strict quarantine policy and the local authorities’ efforts to suppress their infection rates, their ‘total number of cases is forecasted to gradually keep increasing for many months,’ they said.

“Both these urban areas have experienced a several-fold higher number of infections than the other component cities in the capital region,” the experts said, citing the forecast of the ‘UST CoV-2 Model,’ amathematical tool they developed based on the epidemiological model of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It remains unclear why cities like Makati, Mandaluyong, and Parañaque have been more successful at suppressing the community spread of COVID-19 than Manila or Quezon City, they noted.

The early implementation of the enhanced community quarantine seemed to have ‘flattened the curve,’ the researchers said, just not in a ‘dramatic way.’

This is partly because the strict quarantine policy struggled “to drive the number of infected cases down to zero,” they explained.

The scientists warned that COVID-19 cases will increase further once quarantine measures are eased. The government is expected to decide on the next quarantine rules before May 31.

To sustain the gains from restrictions, they said the ‘inevitable’ surge ‘can be offset with a rigorous tracking, testing, and tracing program that seeks to limit community spread by breaking chains of viral transmission.’

Austriaco earned his doctorate in biology from M.I.T. He currently teaches biology and theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island in the United States. He is also a research fellow at the UST.

Egwolf is a biophysicist and faculty member of UST’s Department of Mathematics and Physics. He earned his doctorate in natural sciences from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. He is also a researcher at the UST Research Center for Natural and Applied Science.