Scale down on testing, scale up on vaccines

By: Joel Ruiz Butuyan - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | September 13,2021 - 08:00 AM

The strategy being pursued by the government to stop the spread of COVID-19 is failing.

It’s resulting in a waste of public funds, with little hope of slowing down the pandemic. Everyone is quarreling about the correct level of quarantine restriction (ECQ-MECQ-GCG-MGCQ), but a far bigger problem is being overlooked.

Our government follows a two-pronged approach to stop the spread of the virus. First, it has a massive program of testing and treatment of those who have symptoms. Second, it has the vaccination program. These two strategies are costing billions of scarce public funds.

When someone shows symptoms of the virus, he/she is first subjected to an antigen test by the local government at a cost of P800. The national government, through the Department of Health (DOH), then makes a confirmatory RT-PCR test at a cost of P3,800. That’s a total cost of P4,600 per person, just to confirm what he/she is already experiencing. That much is spent with no treatment or vaccine yet that will address the illness.

Compare this P4,600 testing expense with the P1,300 cost of a two-dose vaccine per the government’s own estimates. The amount we spend to test one person is equivalent to the cost of vaccinating 3.5 individuals. It increases to 6.5 individuals who should benefit from vaccination instead, because the government spends another P3,800 for an RT-PCR test before a person is certified virus-free. That’s a whopping total cost of P8,400 to test a single person, instead of being used to vaccinate 6.5 individuals.

Last Saturday, the DOH reported 26,303 new infections, and we presumably spent P121 million on tests in one day. If we multiply this test cost by a year, we are and we will be spending tens of billions of public funds on test cost alone. With projections that new infections will reach 40,000 or more per day by October, we are looking at wasting a humongous amount of public funds on test cost. Meanwhile, our country is scrambling for funds to ramp up vaccination and to compensate our highly demoralized health workers.

Our country must scale down on testing and massively scale up on vaccination. Instead of testing all symptomatic persons, the testing should be done one individual per household, because the highly contagious Delta variant is being transmitted at the household level already. The entire household should be quarantined and assisted with treatment protocols when one symptomatic member turns positive.

Also, instead of testing all symptomatic individuals, the government should selectively use testing as a flashlight to search for asymptomatic individuals who are potential superspreaders because they heavily interact with the public, like health and business frontliners and public employees.

Per government data, only 5 percent of infected people will need special treatment, while the rest will only have mild symptoms needing ordinary care. The 5 percent are those with comorbidities and senior citizens. They will need costly medicines like remdesivir and tocilizumab, which were the drugs that saved my life when I contracted the virus. Chunks of the COVID-19 testing budget should be rechanneled to the purchase of these drugs so that all provinces will have enough supply. It’s disturbing why mandatory licensing and expedited local production of these highly critical medicines are not being demanded by all the world’s governments, at a time of severe shortages.

Since the virus has entered our homes, the focus must shift from the community to the household. The government must provide a checklist of protocols, requiring each household to appoint a health security officer who will enforce written rules on social distancing, mask-wearing, medication, breathing exercises, and sleeping and dietary regimen. These are all brilliant suggestions from Cagayan provincial board member Cris Barcena.

This pandemic is not a mere health challenge that needs the linear solution of testing and treatment that’s practiced during normal times. These are dire and desperate times that need out-of-the-box solutions on a cocktail of challenges. Public officials must ship out if they continue in their zombie-like stupor.

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