House-to-house case search as PH reboots pandemic strategy

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 05 2020 05:08 PM

MANILA--Stung by criticism from weary medical front liners, the Philippine government is set to deploy teams to go on a house-to-house search for COVID-19 cases as part of a recalibrated strategy against a virus outbreak threatening to spin out of control.

The Department of Health (DOH) said the poor will be provided face masks and face shields, while making sure that rapid anti-body tests would not be used to screen patients for possible COVID-19 infection, its spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The recalibrated approach was also intended to "crush" clusters of infections in communities where health authorities are looking to implement lockdowns more strategically--such as streets or work places--should cases again surge after the 2-week quarantine.

The government reverted Metro Manila and the nearby provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan, and Rizal under a modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) in response to a "distress" call from health workers, who called for a "timeout" and a "definite" action plan against the pandemic.

"We have 2 weeks to recalibrate our responses and stop the rise of these infections," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told an online forum.

Coordinated Operations to Defeat the Epidemic or CODE teams will conduct a "systematic screening" of all households in targeted areas to identify those exhibiting symptoms of the virus so they could be swabbed, isolated, and treated, she said.

The government will make sure that those requiring hospital admission or isolation will all be accommodated, she said, adding that confined patients would have "zero out-of-pocket expenses."

A new policy will also require at least 37 contacts identified for every person who will test positive for COVID-19, employing a data-driven procedure developed by Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, who was designated "contact tracing czar."

"We need to actively find the cases and eliminate clusters of infections," Vergeire said. "We will not wait for the patients to come to the system. We will find them."

Early last month, the interior department came under fire for pushing for a similar door-to-door search, involving local police, for mild COVID-19 patients to send them to government facilities for monitoring.

By rebooting the strategy, the government was seeking to prevent another spike in cases once it relaxed the lockdowns. As predicted, infections surged after Metro Manila shifted to a general community quarantine last June 1.

Last Tuesday, the country hit a record-high 6,352 new cases, with 44,429 active infections, raising concerns that the current action plan was not working.

Part of the new strategy is to conduct a massive information drive to convince the public to comply with minimum health standards such as wearing face masks and observing physical distancing.

Vergeire said physical distancing cues would be provided in areas such as markets, terminals, schools, and churches. 

"In the next 2 weeks, people would see that we are going to prime the system," she said. "We are going on the ground... We would want the people to feel that the DOH is there."