Philippines reduces COVID-19 testing backlogs as labs face challenges

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 02 2020 11:24 AM

MANILA — The Department of Health on Tuesday reported that its accredited COVID-19 laboratories were able to reduce testing backlogs to below 2,000 despite facing various problems. 

"So we have a total of about 1,691 backlogs as of 6 p.m. yesterday,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told media during a virtual briefing on Tuesday morning. 

Vergeire reiterated that they were able to bring down the total backlog in testing to 545 last week with the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine, which has the biggest capacity, bringing down its backlog to less than 300.

This was after a couple of laboratories had to halt or partially reduce its testing operations because of damaged machines or facilities. 

However, Western Visayas Medical Center, the only accredited COVID-19 laboratory in Region 6, was the next facility to face problems.

“Nasira din 'yung exhaust system ng negative pressure nila. So they had to stop taking samples kasi nga pinapagawa pa 'yung exhaust system. So tumaas uli 'yung backlog,” Vergeire said.

(The exhaust system of their negative pressure room was damaged. So they had to stop taking samples while the exhaust system is being repaired. This is why backlog increased again.) 

A negative pressure system ensures that pathogens are not able to spread outside of the laboratory.

Because of this, the laboratory had a backlog of 1,168 samples during the weekend. It went down to 505 on Monday.

Add to that 353 backlogs from RITM and several from the 40 other laboratories in the country, resulting in a total backlog of 1,691 as of Monday.

Currently, she said their laboratories have a capacity averaging around 8,000 to 9,000 tests a day. Previously, they were able to run almost 12,000 tests in a day.

But Vergeire said operations have been limited because of the cited issues.

She said the laboratories are hard at work in addressing the backlogs, especially since some of the other labs that had to halt testing are now back. Besides the 38 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) laboratories and the 11 GenExpert laboratories, the country also has a few modular or pop-up labs in various parts of the country that help out in the testing.

The health official also said that they have been able to provide adequate supplies recently despite the challenges they face in sourcing them.

“If we look at the trend and we see na nagsa-stabilize na ang supplies natin (If we look at the trend, we see that our supplies are stabilizing). Because that’s the major limiting factor for all laboratories,” she said, explaining that only a particular type of N95 mask is allowed to ensure the safety of lab personnel.