MANILA—A World Health Organization (WHO) official on Monday urged the Philippine government to speed up tracing people who came in close contact with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients, with less than a week left before it’s expected to ease lockdowns across the country.
“I would say we are slow... we need to push harder and we really need to work harder,” Dr. Socorro Escalante, WHO acting representative, told an online forum by the Philippine College of Physicians.
Contact tracing is usually initiated after test results are confirmed and sent to local epidemiology offices, a process that takes 13 days from the time the patient goes to a hospital.
“By that time, we have already spread the infection to many people and that’s really very, very late,” said Escalante, who urged the government start looking for close contacts once a suspect case visits a hospital and not wait until lab results were confirmed.
A suspect case can be someone showing influenza-like illness and who came in contact with a confirmed or probable COVID-19 case 2 days before he got sick.
Such patient may also have fever, cough or shortness of breath, or with existing illnesses.
The government has traced 86 percent or 64,306 close contacts of confirmed cases listed by the health department as of May 18.
Of the number, 7,436 or 12 percent were identified as suspect cases, according to Dr. Alethea De Guzman of the Department of Health’s epidemiology bureau.
The period between now and the end of the end of the modified enhanced community quarantine on May 31 presents a “very, very short window of opportunity” to improve on the country’s contact-tracing system, said Escalante.
She said the Philippines had the machinery to conduct “rigorous contact tracing” but implementation had been inconsistent.
“Delay in contact tracing needs to be addressed because otherwise, we are not going to catch up with the transmission the virus,” she warned.
“Bottomline is we have the capacity and the system but we need to make that system function well. A half-functional system is not going to help us beat COVID-19.”
De Guzman said part of problem had to do with incomplete entries and illegible hand writing of patients on case investigation forms, which were often “self-administered.”
Delays in encoding of such forms also held up the process of informing patients and later, local government units for contact tracing, said the doctor, who cited the need to shift to an electronic information system.
“Paper-based information system is not working. COVID proved this to us,” she told the forum.
“There is no such thing as real-time information sharing, but we can make it as close (as possible).”
De Guzman said the government was now working on an app-based information system that could cut the 13-day process to 2 days.
More 30,000 people are registered as contact tracers nationwide as of this month, she said.
But 95,000 more will be needed if the country sought to meet the preferred 1 contact tracer for every 800 people, she said.
The new coronavirus has sickened than 14,000 people and killed at least 868 in the Philippines.