Only 67% of PH’s COVID-19 case contacts traced but WHO says this is expected

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 26 2020 02:28 PM

Pinoy travelers say good bye to their loved ones on Valentine’s day at the departure area of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 1 on February 14, 2020 Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA — For the last week, the Philippine government’s contact tracing for its first three COVID-19 cases seems to have reached a dead end.

Only 67 percent of the three Chinese patients’ contacts were traced as of Monday despite the Department of Health tapping the Philippine National Police and the Commission on Elections. 

But the World Health Organization (WHO) believes that the Philippines has done everything it could.

“I believe The DOH did a good job in tracing the contacts who are on the ground, who had exposure to the cases, be it in hotels or restaurants…The problem they had was in tracing the co-travelers in the planes,” Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO representative to the Philippines, said in an interview with ABS-CBN News on Tuesday.

Abeyasinghe pointed out that the WHO recommendation is only to trace passengers seated two rows before and after the patient’s seat. 

“The DOH was trying to trace everybody on the plane. Naturally, they couldn’t trace everybody,” he explained. “Because many of those passengers may have been Chinese who came here for holidays.”

The first two cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines were a Chinese couple from Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease. They went to Cebu and then Dumaguete before arriving in Manila. The 44-year-old man died but the 38-year-old woman recovered from the disease. Meanwhile, the third case was a 60-year-old woman who flew to Cebu and then to Bohol where she recovered. 

“They probably have gone back now. So they were never traced because they are no longer here,” Abeyasinghe said of the passengers in the same flights as the three patients.

DOH Assistant Secretary for Public Health Services Maria Rosario Vergeire confirmed this, in a text message to ABS-CBN News.

As of Monday, 297 contacts of the first and second cases were traced, with a majority of them already completing their quarantine. For the third case, almost all of those traced are also done with their quarantine.

So far, there are no other cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines despite a spike in the number of infected people in other countries.

Asked if the Philippines was just lucky it had no additional cases, Abeyasinghe said, “I think [the Philippines] took precautions early enough by putting travel bans in place. So all those things have contributed.”

However, he said it’s still very early to feel complacent as the WHO is helping nations prepare for the eventuality of local transmission or a pandemic.

Vergeire also earlier said that while it’s been past the 14-day incubation period since the three cases were detected, they are still trying to trace the remaining contacts.

There are over 80,000 people worldwide who are infected with COVID-19. More than 2,700 have already died.