MANILA — Majority of those reported to have died from COVID-19 in the Philippines were only confirmed as coronavirus cases on the day of or after their demise, the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group (IRG) learned from government data.
CONFIRMED COVID-19 CASES
Of the 1,011 deaths reported by the Department of Health as of June 8, there were 82 whose dates of death were not indicated, while 6 others seem to have erroneous data entries.
Of the 923 fatalities whose dates of death were indicated, 672 (73%) were included in the list of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the day they died or days after that.
Forty-two (5%) of them were announced as COVID-19 cases on the day of their death, but more than half (52%) were confirmed 1 to 7 days after they died.
A total of 153 patients (17%) were only confirmed as COVID-19 cases more than a week after they died.
“The longest gap between death and date of public announcement as a confirmed COVID-19 case was 65 days,” the ABS-CBN IRG said in its report. This was a 68-year-old man from Pasig City who died on March 21 but was only announced as a confirmed case on May 25.
ABS-CBN IRG released its report as the DOH and its accredited laboratories continue to deal with testing backlogs and validation delays.
Such delays prompted the DOH to re-classify its new cases into “fresh cases” to refer to patients whose test results were released and validated in the last 3 days, and “late cases” to refer to patients whose test results were released much earlier but were validated only recently.
DELAYED DEATH ANNOUNCEMENT
Besides the delay in validating the patients as confirmed COVID-19 cases, there were also delays in announcing their deaths.
“If the DOH’s definition of “fresh” and “late” cases were applied to COVID-19 fatalities, nearly 9 in 10 deaths would be considered as late announcements. 803 out of the 923 fatalities (87%) with complete data as of June 8 were publicly announced as COVID-19 fatalities four days or more after they died,” the ABS-CBN IRG said.
Of those, 277 were declared as COVID-related fatalities 15 to 30 days after they died, while 153 were announced as fatalities 31 to 60 days after they died. At least 12 were only announced as fatalities 61 to 79 days after they died.
Based on DOH data, the longest gap between a patient’s death and the public announcement of death was 79 days. It was of an 81-year-old man from Las Piñas City who died on Feb. 3 but whose death was only announced on April 22.
The said delays are mostly based on late validation. This is because after a test result is released, the DOH’s Epidemiology Bureau is required to verify the information to ensure that it is not a repeat test or an erroneous entry.
HOW ABOUT TESTING BACKLOGS?
But there is also another kind of delay: testing backlogs.
In March, the ABS-CBN IRG already noticed the delay in testing, with almost half of COVID-19 fatalities then receiving their test results on the day of or after their death.
However, it has become impossible to continue monitoring this because the DOH has stopped including the date of laboratory confirmation in its data drops released to media and the general public.
A month ago, the DOH had promised to include this information in their data drops. This is also after the ABS-CBN IRG filed a Freedom of Information request to include such data and other information.
In a media briefing on Tuesday morning, ABS-CBN News asked Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire if the delays in test results observed in March were still ongoing.
The health official did not directly answer the question and only said that the concerned health institutions are working to bring down the number of testing backlogs, which was at more than 1,000 at the start of the week.
“It’s erratic owing to the different operational issues that each laboratory is facing,” she said of the backlogs.
Vergeire said they now have new zoning guidelines to ensure that laboratories are not overwhelmed by samples they are not able to process.
She said some of the backlogs are a “function also of a deadline for reporting” as some laboratories are unable to submit their reports to the DOH’s Epidemiology Bureau on time.
The DOH has repeatedly promised to address the backlogs and delays.
Vergeire said this is being dealt with as they transition to a digital system called the COVIDKaya.
The new application, developed by the DOH with the World Health Organization, allows frontliners to fill-up case information forms online at the swabbing centers, hospitals or laboratories.
Before the digital system was rolled up, the DOH had to encode manual forms, which often lacked various information.
Besides information that are no longer included in the data drop, many cases also have missing data. As mentioned, more than 80 fatalities were without date of deaths.
A large number also do not have date of onset of symptoms or illness, making it difficult for the DOH to accurately assess the COVID-19 situation in the Philippines.
The date of onset of illness, based on previous DOH explanations, would give experts a better understanding of how successful the country is in curbing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
But because they still have to deal with incomplete date, Vergeire said they have started using date of swabbing or date of test results release, as proxy to the date of onset of symptoms/illness.