Palace: Contact tracing ‘weakest’ point in PH response
With the spike in coronavirus infections, the government will focus on strengthening its contact tracing efforts, which has been the weakest point in its pandemic response, according to presidential spokesperson Harry Roque.
Speaking at a public briefing on Thursday, Roque said there was a need to automate contact tracing and expressed concern that the StaySafe.ph contact tracing application has not yet been fully deployed despite the government earlier requiring its use.
“Whatever the program is, we really need to automate because, I will have to admit, this is the weakest in our COVID-19 response now, this tracing,” Roque said.
There is also a need to increase the ratio of contacts that are being traced to at least 32 individuals for every positive case, he said.
Tracing too few
Roque cited the observation of Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, who is in charge of contact tracing, that the government is tracing too few people who have been exposed to COVID-19 patients, especially in Metro Manila.
Contact tracing has to be stepped up as the number of infected people in the country goes up, along with improving compliance with health measures, Roque said.
“It’s really an area that we have to focus on,” he said.
In November, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases made the use of the StaySafe.ph contact tracing application mandatory for national government agencies and local governments amid concerns about the privacy of the collected data.
A month later, the task force said all establishments, whether public or private, needed to use StaySafe.ph in order to obtain the government-required Safety Seal.
The StaySafe app was developed by private company Multisys Technologies Corp.
Roque said he could not understand why the app was not widely used despite being launched a long time ago.
“Contact tracing is very important because tracing will enable us to isolate close contacts and avoid the spread of the disease. So I would say that an area for tremendous improvement will be the tracing, the use of a tracing app,” he said.
And while the government has ruled out a return to total lockdown, he said local lockdowns would be implemented in areas with increasing cases of COVID-19.
Roque also said the government would keep implementing different levels of quarantine, but would likely simplify the guidelines.
This was in response to a proposal from Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte to do away with quarantine classifications, which she said created confusion because some of the original restrictions for each level were no longer observed.
Roque said maintaining quarantine classifications would remind the public that there is still a pandemic.
“There is a psychological benefit to it that people will be reminded that they still have to be very careful because a pandemic is [going on]. So, by and large, while we appreciate the suggestion of Mayor Joy Belmonte, perhaps what we will do in the [task force] is to simplify the dos and don’ts for the different regimes as we further reopen the economy,” he said.
The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), meanwhile, said it had funds for contact tracing only up to June.
The DILG, however, could ask Congress for additional funds for the renewal of contact tracers’ contracts, the agency’s spokesperson Jonathan Malaya told a news briefing on Thursday.
P1 billion more
“Our plan is to request Congress to include an additional amount in the Bayanihan 3 [bill] to have enough for contact tracers until the end of the year,” Malaya said.
He said the DILG would ask Congress for P1 billion in additional funds.
The DILG, he said, was given P500 million for 2021 to rehire 15,000 contact tracers, but the funds would last only up to June since the contracts were only for six months.
He said the 15,000 contact tracers were part of the 48,000 hired last year, but not all were rehired because the number of COVID-19 cases declined toward the end of 2020.
Malaya said the Philippines had “more than enough” contact tracers, following the Department of Health recommendation of contact tracer to population ratio of 1:800.
“What we need for 108 million Filipinos is 135,000 contact tracers. We have 255,854 so our contact tracers are more than enough,” he said. —WITH A REPORT FROM PATRICIA DENISE M. CHIU
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