Two weeks ago I wrote about rapid antigen (lateral flow) tests that can detect if you have been infected with COVID-19 by testing for the protein fragments of the virus in saliva, or nose and throat swabs.
The tests were first recommended to me by a fellow senior citizen who was worried about her driver and household helper, who go home on weekends. I felt even more at risk because my driver goes home every day, and was (and still isn’t) convinced about COVID, which he thinks is fabricated (“gawa gawa lang”) by the government.
Having the rapid antigen tests allowed me to check my two households (some of my children live outside Manila), resulting in immediate quarantine of employees (both drivers) and none of my household members getting infected. In the office, the tests got three people after they had already been infected, but prevented them from further spreading COVID-19 to other staff.
I’m hearing more of similar stories from others using the rapid antigen tests in their homes and offices.
After my article came out I got inquiries from readers about where to get them but our office’s supplier said she was not going to accept online orders because the Food and Drug Administration has banned such sales.
This is so typical of our government when it comes to responses to COVID: quick to ban but not providing viable alternatives.
The online sales are thriving and are a real service but it can be chaotic. You can get the tests for as low as P4,000 per box of 20, which means P200 per test. But sky’s the limit from there and, Filipino-style, there are now “tingi” offers: you can buy just one test and I’ve seen it go as high as P650 each. If you get the test in dental clinics, many of which are now requiring them, the cost goes as high as P900 each.
Which is still cheaper than the RT-PCR (real time polymerase chain reaction) tests offered by the Red Cross at P1,500 each or even higher at other health facilities. A cousin in Davao recently paid P5,000 for one such test.
Not only that, you have to wait at least 24 hours for your test results, a delay which could mean the person is still moving around and spreading the infection.
The problem, too, and this I got from readers, is that people don’t want to take the RT-PCR tests in the hospitals and centers because they are under the impression that if you test positive, the government will quarantine you in their facilities and all kinds of stories have been going around, some more of urban myths, about the conditions and risks in these places.
This is what we get from the lack of scientific guidance for our policies. The other week, we finally got a loosening of requirements for face shields but the fact remains that their use is not considered scientific. Even China, which exports the shields to us, does not require those shields.
Then there’s the continuing sequestration of minors, especially in poorer communities, where the adverse effects are likely to be worse from the deprivation of sunlight and fresh air. Unicef has made repeated calls for the government to loosen the restrictions.
Unicef has also pointed out we are one of a handful of countries that still does not have face-to-face classes and that the learning losses are tremendous. Even before COVID, we were already at the bottom of the league for reading, math, and science in international tests comparing countries. That is likely to have worsened.
Coming up with a rational policy around rapid testing will help us to reopen schools safely. I’ve been reading the guidelines for other countries, including those with similar socioeconomic status as we do and the plans are to deploy these rapid antigen tests in schools. As the volume increases, the prices for these tests will drop and will be worth it for mass testing.
Some governments, like the United Kingdom, allow people to order the tests online from the National Health Service, with support services to guide users on the proper use of the tests, on the interpretation of the results, and for dealing with the infection.
We will lag behind again because we’re not thinking ahead. Meanwhile, we continue to get more undetected infections and more infections spreading. The rapid tests, which could be lifesaving, are left to “free” market forces with exorbitant prices and a vacuum of information.
All of which favors COVID-19.
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