Malilong: We’re not capable of coronavirus testing yet

Frank Malilong

THREE months after the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was first detected in the city of Wuhan in China and despite its rapid global transmission, we still do not have the capacity to test people for the disease.

The machines are there and hospital staff have already been trained to operate them, but they’re still waiting for the test kits to arrive, Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center Hospital Director Dr. Gerardo Aquino disclosed during a consultative meeting at City Hall Friday morning, March 13, 2020. Aquino was hopeful that the kits will arrive soon.

Until then, swabs taken from patients under investigation (PUIs) will have to be sent to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Alabang, Metro Manila for testing. At the earliest, the results will be known in three days, I was told.

Coronavirus testing is unlike any other laboratory work commonly performed in hospitals. It requires a special kind of reagent and involves minimal human intervention as it is the machine itself that processes the specimen and reads the results.

The problem is that we have a limited supply of test kits in the country. The situation is not exclusive to the Philippines. Even in the United States, people are complaining about being unable to have themselves screened.

It is probably because of this that we do not conduct random tests. I was told that only the PUIs are being tested. So if you have only mild symptoms, go on voluntary quarantine at home, a doctor friend said, instead of burdening our public health system by seeking hospital admission and virus testing.

Cebu City Mayor Edgar Labella, who called Friday’s consultative meeting, is trying to expedite the acquisition of test kits for Cebu with the help of Presidential Assistant for the Visayas Mike Dino. They’re considering buying the kits abroad, the mayor told me on the phone Friday evening.

Secretary Dino can make things easier for the regional DOH and the VSMMC in securing the release of the test kits. He can use his influence among his fellow Cabinet members. But since we have a limited supply, he and the mayor may ultimately have to look elsewhere.

Labella has been all over town for many weeks now implementing preventive measures against an outbreak while preparing for a possible upsurge. He personally supervised the clean-up of the city’s 10 public markets prior to disinfection. He has ordered close monitoring of prices of essential commodities and regulated the entry of vessels at the local port. He had ordered the suspension of classes last Friday after so much agonizing because he did not want to disturb the academic calendar.

On Saturday, March 14, he led a team that inspected the Cebu City Medical Center, one floor of which he wants to commission immediately to accommodate Covid-19 patients. He is also planning to charter a vessel to be used as a floating hospital. The government is working.

In the meantime, let us remain calm and obey what the government says. Covid-19 is deadly, there is no denying that, but it does not kill everyone. The mortality rate is only three percent and the most vulnerable ones are those in our age bracket. But hey, we have lived long enough and seen our children grow, so passing on is not really such a terrible thought.