Dizon: Testing efforts not enough, but guidelines must be followed

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 1) — Testing czar Vince Dizon admits that the government's testing efforts need improvement, but he notes that there are guidelines that must be followed in COVID-19 testing.

In a Palace briefing on Wednesday, Dizon said the country's testing peaked at over 80,000 a day last week, with a daily average of close to 70,000 tests.

"To the question, 'Is it enough?' I don't think it's enough, to be honest. But we have to understand that we always follow the advice of our experts that we cannot just test shotgun, meaning magte-test tayo ng walang basis (testing without basis)," he said.

"It needs to be risk-based and it needs to be based on the guidelines that have been approved by the experts and the Department of Health," he added.

According to the guidelines, Dizon said, there is a need to test symptomatic patients, contacts, and those in high-risk areas.

The testing czar made the statement after Vice President Leni Robredo criticized the government for its weak COVID-19 testing and contact tracing efforts as the country tallied a record-high 22,366 new cases on Aug. 30.

Speaking to CNN Philippines, health reform advocate Dr. Tony Leachon also said testing in the country is very low - with the positivity rate currently at 26.4%.

The World Health Organization has set a standard positivity rate of below 5% to show the infection has been controlled.

"If you don't test enough you will not decrease the positivity rate and you will continue to transmit the infection," said Leachon, a former pandemic response task force special adviser.

Dizon also said COVID-19 testing is costly - with the cheapest at ₱2,000.

"At this rate already, we are already spending P160 million a day, both from the pockets of our citizens and from the PhilHealth. Napakalaking pondo po nito (It's already a large amount)," he said.

"Sa tingin ko po, bago tayo maglabas ng mga statement na kailangan mag-test tayo ng napakalaki, siguro pag-isipan natin yung practical and on the ground implications nito. Kapag kailangan natin mag-test o mag-contact trace, may gastos po 'yun."

[Translation: I think before we release any statement calling to test more people, we should first think the practical and on the ground implications. Testing and contact tracing entail spending.]

The DOH has a proposed a budget of ₱242.22 billion under the 2022 national budget. However, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said during the budget deliberation that there is no budget allotted for more COVID-19 testing laboratories.

Manpower woes

Meanwhile, Dizon said the lack of additional vaccinators could be one of the reasons why the government missed the target of 500,000 daily shots for August.

Only 13.7 million doses were administered for the month, or an average of 450,000 daily doses, he said.

“Ang pinakamabigat pong hamon ay mga vaccinators at healthcare workers. Bakit po? Dahil po ang mga vaccinators natin, ang mga doktor natin, mga nurse natin, sa iba’t-ibang vaccinator center sa buong bansa, sila din po ang kinakailangan na healthcare workers na kailangan mag-alaga ng mga may sakit sa ospital,” said Dizon.

[Translation: The biggest challenge is about our vaccinators and healthcare workers. Why? Because our vaccinators, the doctors and nurses in vaccination centers nationwide, they are also the healthcare workers who need to take care of patients in hospitals.]

The government is currently working on guidelines to enlist medical and nursing students as additional vaccinators.

As of Aug. 31, the country has administered 33.7 million COVID-19 vaccine doses. Almost 14 million Filipinos are already fully vaccinated against the disease.