Local, national, and regional health officials and executive officers met virtually to discuss strategies to improve COVID-19 testing outcomes at the fourth and final COVID-19 Virtual Learning Session organized by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in partnership with PUBLiCUS Asia, Inc. and the Association of Political Consultants in Asia (APCA).
Titled ‘Rising to the COVID-19 Leadership Challenge, Mobilizing Resources for Effective Targeted and Expanded Testing and Use of Appropriate Technologies’, the event featured presentations by Health Undersecretary Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire and Dr. Huong Thi Giang Tran of the World Health Organization – Regional Office for the Western Pacific outlining the national testing strategies implemented by the Philippine and Vietnamese governments.
Meanwhile, mayors Oscar Moreno (Cagayan de Oro City), Jerry Trenas (Iloilo City), and Marcelino Teodoro (Marikina City) were joined by Batangas City health chief Dr. Carmelita Barrion to reflect on best case practices and challenges faced in implementing their respective local testing regimes.
USAID/Philippines Project Management Specialist on Infectious Diseases Dr. Ernesto and Bontuyan Jr. and Professor Joaquin Gonzalez III of Golden Gate University (California, U.S.A.) also shared their insight.
Comparative nat’l gov’t strategies
Undersecretary Vergeire explained that the national government’s targeted expanded testing strategy focuses on serving vulnerable sectors that are particularly susceptible to COVID-19.
She explained that limited resources since the onset of the pandemic have necessitated the creation of data-backed strategies to maximize the government’s expanded testing program and related pandemic responses. Fortunately, advancements in testing procedures have also led to an expanded scope of testing.
Guided by the mandates of the national government, local government units have been empowered to develop testing facilities together with the help of the private sector. Vergeire said that a total of 67 COVID-19 laboratories have been fully certified by the DOH, with 80 others approaching full certification.
In Vietnam, Tran said that risk assessment began in January due to fears that the shared border with China would result in a high incidence of infection. Vietnam has practiced strategies similar to the Philippines, such as mandatory quarantine of individuals who had traveled to COVID-19 positive areas as well as the use of the military and police to ensure that health protocols are properly observed in public places.
Tran attributed the success of Vietnam’s COVID-19 response—the country has not reported a new COVID-19 case since April 16—to the application of lessons learned from previous health emergencies such as SARS and AH1N1.
She also mentioned that risk communication and strengthened contact tracing likewise contributed to the current success of Vietnam in managing the pandemic locally.
LGU challenges and responses
Mayor Trenas of Iloilo City spoke of the early difficulties of processing COVID-19 test sample at the onset of the virus. Since then, Iloilo City has boosted its testing capacities with the help of the private sector.
Policies in Iloilo City are continuously being strengthened to prevent community transmission with the arrival of locally stranded individuals or LSIs. Observing directives from the national government, all LSIs are subjected to quarantine and swabbing to ensure that they are virus-free before reintegration in city life.
According to Mayor Moreno of Cagayan De Oro, technology has helped the city monitor COVID-19 cases—most of which are LSIs. He attributed the efficient testing procedures in Cagayan de Oro City to the GeneXPert testing machines which caters to the needs of the city and all of Northern Mindanao.
Meanwhile, Marikina City was one of the first LGUs certified by the DOH to conduct COVID-19 testing. Teodoro said that the city has observed the “screen, test, and treat” procedure in initiating targeted and expanded testing. Rapid testing is also used to regularly screen high-risk individuals such as frontliners.
Teodoro also highlighted that strengthening the local health system has resulted in the city achieving the fastest deceleration of infection rates in Metro Manila.
Dr. Carmelita Barrion of Batangas City shared that after initial challenges due to the lack of testing capacity in Calabarzon, the city has ramped up its testing capabilities through a partnership with the Philippine Red Cross lab. DOH also recently certified a testing facility in the city which would be able to cater to the entire province of Batangas as well.
Increased collaboration for resource mobilization
Professor Joaquin Gonzalez III shared that COVID-19 testing in San Francisco, California has been made widely accessible by the local government, with testing procedures offered for free to eligible individuals including migrants.
The business sector and private groups have also been at the forefront in the development of technology to hasten efforts to control the virus in the Northern California city. Aside from the support from affluent business communities such as Silicon Valley, other measures implemented by the local government have been properly observed by the community and has contributed to the successful management of COVID-19 in their locality.
Dr. Ernesto Bontuyan Jr. of USAID/Philippines discussed the assistance offered by the American government in supporting local efforts to combat COVID-19. $6.4 million have been allocated through the USAID COVID-19 assistance program since March.
Bontuyan relayed that USAID has also contributed to developing testing laboratories and logistical assistance for testing samples in Mindanao.
Aside from the infrastructure assistance, USAID has also extended technical assistance to LGUs in the form of capacity-building, risk communication, and community engagement aimed at increasing resilience and preventing community transmission of the virus.