Magalong admits lapses in PH's COVID-19 contact tracing program

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 16 2021 09:38 PM

Magalong admits lapses in PH's COVID-19 contact tracing program 1
Passengers try the new contact tracing app launched by MRT-3 at the North Avenue Station in Quezon City on January 18, 2021. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News​/File

MANILA - Rowena Limpin has been looking for a free mobile app and other online solutions that can help make the COVID-19 contact-tracing scheme in her niece's salon more efficient.

Customers prefer to use QR codes for contact tracing instead of filling up sheets of paper, but Limpin doesn't know where to get a scanner for that.

"Mas mabilis yung QR code kaysa yung magfi-fill up ka pa tapos hindi din naman siya accurate kung totoo yung sinasabi dun ng tao," said Limpin, who helps manage her family's small business in Pasig City.

(Scanning the QR code is faster compared to filling up sheets of paper. You don't even know if the information they wrote is accurate.)

The national government should release a single quarantine pass or a QR code that may be used in all establishments nationwide, she said.

"Medyo nakaka-hassle din kasi minsan wala kang internet, hindi mo ma-scan yung QR code sa isang tindahan, so hindi ka makakapasok," she said.

(It's a bit of a hassle because you don't have internet all the time so if you can't scan a store's QR code, you can't enter.)

As of March 2021, about a third of cities in Metro Manila have mounted their own contact-tracing solution systems.

Antipolo, Mandaluyong, Pasig, and Valenzuela have adjusted their respective QR code passes so that it can be used anywhere in the 4 cities. Taguig has its own QR code pass.

Earlier this month, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) said only 4 out of 17 Metro Manila local governments have been compliant with COVID-19 contact tracing standards.

Only Manila, Pateros, San Juan, and Taguig have complied with the standard of having 1 contact tracer per 800 people set by the government, DILG Undersecretary Epimaco Densing said. 

Contact tracing czar Benjamin Magalong admitted that the Philippines' ability to gather data and find those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 patients remains lacking a year since Luzon was placed under enhanced community quarantine to curb the spread of the disease.

"Unang-una walang proper cascading. Naituro mo sa mga trainers ng provincial level pero hindi nacascade sa mga munisipyo," Magalong said in an interview on state-run PTV.

(First of all, there is no proper cascading. Even if you've briefed trainers on the provincial level, they failed to cascade it to the municipal level.)

"Nilalagay lang sa Excel format kaya talagang walang database. Mahirap ang retrieval, mahirap ang analysis," he said.

(They just encode it via Excel format so there is really no database. We are having a hard time with the retrieval, it makes the analysis difficult.)

The government's decision to trim its contact tracers by 20,000 people due to "limited budget" also hampered the Philippines' efficiency when it comes to finding those who may be carriers of the disease, Magalong said.

"Kailangan natin ng more contact tracers because na-overwhelm na 'yung ating mga contact tracers," he said.

(We need more contact tracers because our current contact tracers are already overwhelmed.)

"They are tired, they are exhausted and mentally and physically pressured," he said.

The capital region registered a spike in new COVID-19 cases this month, prompting Metro Manila mayors to reimpose a curfew.

The National Task Force Against COVID-19 has spoken to the Philippine National Police to deploy some of its troops as contact tracers to boost the government's efforts to trace those who need to be quarantined, Magalong said.

The government can expedite the tracing of possible COVID-19 carriers if it decides to have a single database that can be used both by the public and private sectors, cybersecurity expert Allan Cabanlong told ABS-CBN News in a separate interview.

"Mas mabilis. Parang naglagay ka ng impormasyon na nasa isang container lang kaysa naglagay ka ng tubig sa maraming container," Cabanlong said.

(It is faster. It's like putting information in one container instead of putting it in various containers.)

"It will take time kumpara ilagay mo pa sa isang container," he said.

(It will take time when you have to transfer it to another container.)

Last week, Malacañang ordered all establishments to use the StaySafePH app as their primary contact tracing system, but Magalong said the government has yet to finalize the deal with the app's developer.

"Dapat donate na nang buong-buo 'yung sistema, 'yung storage pati 'yung source code para pag-aralan kung kumpleto talaga… It looks like hindi nangyari 'yun," he said.

(They should donate the system as a whole, including the storage and the source code so that we can evaluate it as a whole... It looks like that did not happen.)

"Ang gusto ata ng StaySafe, tanggapin niyo muna atsaka namin bibigay yang susi. Yun ngayon yung inaayos namin," he said.

(It seems that StaySafe wants us to accept the app first before they give us all the keys. That's what we are trying to settle.

The government expects to settle the deal by March 22, he said.

ABS-CBN News asked Multisys Technology Corp, the developer of StaySafePH, for a comment, but they have yet to respond.

The contact tracing czar said the government is also boosting its efforts to ensure that data privacy laws would not be breached as the Philippine tries to roll out a unified tracing application a year after the pandemic began.