Cebu City steps up contact tracing
CEBU CITY—Sensing a weak spot in this city’s contact tracing strategy, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu has brought in Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong to help organize teams that will identify people who have close contact with those infected with the new coronavirus (COVID-19).
“There are three weapons to contain the virus: community quarantine, testing and contact tracing. The most difficult part is really contact tracing. And that’s what Cebu City lacks. We don’t know where our targets are,” said Cimatu, the COVID-19 point person in Cebu.
Magalong, a retired police general, arrived in Cebu City on Tuesday with six staff members who would train the local government’s contact tracing teams for two weeks and help level up its strategy against the virus.
Two of Magalong’s companions are members of the City Hall information technology division who operate a digital surveillance system that keeps track of patients even after they have recovered.
The system also keeps tabs on people with whom infected patients have had direct or indirect contact, and their movement around the community. Data compiled by the system help government doctors forecast where infections are likely to rise.The epidemiology team convinces patients to reveal their identities to encourage their contacts to submit to tests and voluntary quarantine.
But key to this process are policemen who have been tapped for their investigative skills in drawing information from patients and in their ability to track down people.Magalong said a contact tracing team should have a doctor, a nurse, a health worker and a police investigator.Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella earlier formed 35 teams of contact tracers with five members each. But Magalong said the teams may not be enough for the city’s 80 villages.
“Contact tracing is a very stressful strategy in containing the virus. Looking at the number of cases, 35 [teams] are not enough. The more contact tracers, the better,” said the Baguio mayor.Labella said he hoped to increase the number of contact tracers to 80. “Hopefully, there could be some medical practitioners to help these teams. I am glad that I have the support of the national government. We should see to it that we will have at least a thousand tests every day in the 80 villages in the city.”
He added: “We have been conducting massive testing as early as March. Some friends advised me not to be too aggressive otherwise the cases will increase. But I don’t care if the cases will increase as long as we do our job in locating those infected with the virus.”
Magalong lauded the Cebu City government’s continued massive testing to identify, isolate and treat those who contracted the virus.
“Proactive and expanded testing is the only way to determine the actual situation and come up with a strategic solution. If there is continued testing, there would be a significant increase in cases,” he said.
“You have a very proactive local government here. We don’t have to dictate [to] them. They did a great job. We’re just here to share our best practices (in Baguio) and enhance their (Cebu City) capacity in contact tracing.” Magalong, a former chief of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the Philippine National Police, introduced the enhanced cognitive interviewing, a police questioning technique to get information about a crime scene from eyewitnesses and victims.
“Assuming, no one has a background in cognitive interviewing skill then this is something that we will impart to the participants,” he said.
If Cebu City would manage to implement an effective contact tracing strategy, it might reduce its number of COVID-19 cases, Cimatu said. “We have to catch up, locate and identify where the virus is in Cebu,” he said.Strict lockdown poised
He also said he planned to put some subvillages or barangay in the city with a high number of cases under strict lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.
Cebu City was first placed under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) on March 28 to May 31. On June 1, its status was downgraded to a more relaxed general community quarantine which led to the reopening of some businesses and public transportation.On June 15, President Duterte put the city under ECQ again due to the rising number of cases, as well as the city’s problem of providing health-care assistance to patients.
As of July 6, the Department of Health recorded 6,870 COVID-19 cases in Cebu City, including 250 deaths and 2,869 recoveries. At least 1,636 people are recuperating in hospitals while 2,114 others are staying in quarantine facilities. —WITH REPORTS FROM NESTLE SEMILLA AND VINCENT CABREZA INQ
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