Doctors urge Senate to favor P11.7- billion budget for hiring contact tracers
MANILA, Philippines — Doctors urged the Senate on Wednesday to reconsider its position on the P11.7-billion budget the Department of Health (DOH) is asking to hire contact tracers as they pointed out that the country’s shortage in these health workers was one of the reasons why the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread as it did in March.
According to infectious disease expert Dr. Rontgene Solante, the government should fund the hiring of these health workers given that the easing of quarantine measures placed everybody at “high risk” of being infected.
“How can we now isolate contacts if we don’t invest in contact tracers?” said Solante, the former president of the Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.
He added that the lack of contact tracers in February was crucial to how the virus spread in the country.
“I think that was the start… when they weren’t able to trace all of the contacts of the Chinese tourists. Contact tracing is very important in an epidemic,” Solante said.
The first three cases in the country were all residents of Wuhan, the original epicenter of the new coronavirus that has sickened close to 6.4 million and killed more than 380,000. Efforts to locate everyone they came in contact with proved to be wanting.
In total, the three Chinese tourists came in contact with at least 1,195 persons during their trip to the country from late January to early February.
The DOH, however, traced barely half of their close contacts as only 552 were interviewed and monitored. Of these, 61 showed symptoms related to COVID-19.
Based on the DOH report, none of them tested positive. It’s anyone’s guess though as to what happened to the 643 other contacts since DOH was unable to locate them.
One of the reasons why DOH was unable to conduct an effective contact tracing strategy was because it only tapped the police when it already had a hard time looking for the concerned persons.
Solante earlier said that foregoing contact tracing was a mistake since there it allowed the “potential that one of those they came in contact with could have been infected.”
On Monday, Senate President Vicente III Sotto expressed disapproval in granting DOH a budget of P11.7 billion to hire around 130,000 contact tracers nationwide. Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Sen. Panfilo Lacson backed Sotto Wednesday as they urged DOH to find an alternative method.
Rather than fund the hiring of contact tracers, who are crucial in tracking persons who may be infected with COVID-19, Sotto suggested that the fund DOH was asking for be used instead for the treatment of patients.
Sotto argued that DOH “cannot just deploy anyone to do the job.” But in the same breath, he pointed out that the agency “coordinate with other government offices and tap displaced employees to carry out the task at no additional cost to the government.”
Based on the DOH estimate, the country needs 126,224 contact tracers to reach its requirement of one tracer per 800 persons. The P11.7-billion budget will cover the tracers’ monthly salary of P30,000 for three months.
To date, there are only more than 38,000 tracers nationwide.
Under DOH’s proposal to the Department of the Interior and Local Government, those to be hired as contact tracers should at least be someone who is a graduate or undergraduate of an allied medical course. Among these professions include nurses, medical technologists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists and the like.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said last week that these persons should also possess such competencies as able to data gather, interview cases and conduct health assessments.
They should also be capable in advocating for public health since “they need to provide health education messages as well,” Vergeire said.
In a statement, Dr. Ludina Insigne, who is a member of one of the DOH’s first contact tracing teams, stressed that what tracers do is essential to curbing the spread of COVID-19.
“Contract tracing is a vital public health tool for controlling infectious disease outbreak. It will stop the chains of transmission of an infectious disease. Doing contract tracing is putting us at risk. But it is worth the risk,” she said.
“To prevent the spread of COVID-19, [we must] detect, report, isolate and treat,” she added.
Dr. Lulu Bravo, executive director of the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination, said she hoped lawmakers would see the wisdom in pouring in funds to hire contact tracers.
“We need more budget for health, whether it is for tracers or resources. We have to invest in health,” she said.
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