MANILA (UPDATE) - Two senators have refused to undergo swabbing for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) even after a colleague tested positive for the virus, citing a Department of Health (DOH) policy prioritizing the elderly and symptomatic patients amid a limited supply of test kits.
Opposition senators Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan and Risa Hontiveros opted not to take the test after Senate President Vicente Sotto III's call for all senators to be checked, even without symptoms, in the wake of Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri's diagnosis.
"Initially, I was planning to get tested, but when I learned that DOH prescribed protocols provided that only those who had been exposed to COVID positive persons with flu symptoms should be tested, I decided that since I had no symptoms then I ought not to be tested," Pangilinan told ABS-CBN News in a text message.
"I have, however, been on self-quarantine since Tuesday last week as recommended by the same DOH protocols," he said.
Hontiveros also opted not to test for COVID-19 for the same reasons.
"She's following health protocols... She is not displaying any symptoms," Hontiveros' staff said in a separate message when asked if the senator was among those who underwent the COVID-19 test in Sotto's office on March 17, 2020.
"She is under self-quarantine after Sen. Migz tested positive for COVID-19," her staff said.
Due to the limited number of testing kits in the Philippines, the Health department earlier said that the COVID-19 test would only be administered to the elderly and patients who have been exhibiting symptoms of the disease including fever, headache, cough and colds.
Several high-ranking government officials and their relatives, including President Rodrigo Duterte and his family, cabinet members and lawmakers have, meanwhile, been tested despite showing no symptoms.
Among those tested were exposed to COVID-19 patients at separate March 5 events: a Senate hearing and a road infrastructure event.
HEALTH OF KEY GOV'T OFFICIALS 'IMPORTANT'
Sotto explained it was "important" to ensure that key government officials remain healthy to "do our [their] work" of running the country.
"Health stability of key government officials is most important for the country," the Senate President (SP) told ABS-CBN News.
"As SP, I cannot be away from work even for just a weekend," he said.
Some senators "volunteered to be tested because we wanted to make sure we are healthy enough to do our work. Besides, we had a colleague who tested positive," he said.
Senators who underwent COVID-19 testing this week were Sotto, Grace Poe, Pia Cayetano, Imee Marcos, Bong Revilla and Francis Tolentino. They were also joined by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Rene Samonte.
Senators Panfilo "Ping" Lacson and Richard Gordon reportedly took the test in a separate venue.
Last week, Senators Gatchalian, Nancy Binay and Christopher "Bong" Go tested negative for COVID-19. The President and several cabinet members have also been found negative of the virus.
Though the Senate is on a 2-month break, lawmakers will have to convene in a special session should the executive department request for a supplemental budget to augment funds for medical items, relief goods and cash aid for frontline workers fighting the COVID-19 crisis.
In an earlier interview, the DOH explained that the testing of ranking government officials despite having no symptoms were done before the DOH changed its policy on COVID-19 testing due to limited kit supply.
A Senate inquiry earlier found that the Department of Health only had 2,000 test kits shortly before the Philippines declared a state of public health emergency due to the rapid spread of COVID-19.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila has donated some 2,000 test kits and is expected to send 100,000 more, while Chinese philanthropist Jack Ma committed to give 50,000 units to the Philippines while a locally-produced kit has yet to be certified by the Food and Drug Administration.
As of the afternoon of March 18, the number of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines has risen to 202, with 17 deaths and 7 recoveries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has infected nearly 200,000 and killed nearly 8,000 around the world.