Health officials have ordered a stop to the testing of people for COVID-19 in a village in the central Philippines after learning that at least 54 residents have been infected by the disease.
Daisy Villa of the Cebu City Health department announced a stop to tests as armed soldiers and policemen started to barricade the village of Zapatera to prevent residents from leaving.
Villa said the order to stop the tests came from the country’s Department of Health in Manila, which advised local officials to consider the entire village infected.
Health undersecretary Rosario Vergeire denied a halt to testing in Zapatera village.
Cebu City Mayor Ergardo Labella, responding to appeals by the local village head, ordered mass testing to continue.
The city government said 82 have now tested positive in the village. The mayor ordered testing in all other nearby villages.
The alarm in the city of Cebu came as the mayor of the city of Valenzuela in the capital announced that its first round of mass testing showed five of 40 tests turned out positive for infection.
Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian ordered those confirmed of the disease to be isolated in a building initially constructed as a drug rehabilitation facility.
“We will take care of them,” said the mayor. “We’ll make sure they are well-fed and they’ll be given medical intervention,” he said.
Gatchalian said the patients will again be tested based on existing testing protocols “until they turn negative.”
On April 17, the health department recorded 218 new cases of COVID-19, raising the total to 5,878.
The gap between the number of recoveries and deaths further widened as 52 more people recovered from the disease, bringing the total to 487. The death toll is now 387, with 25 new fatalities.
Gatchalian typifies local government executives in the Philippines who have become critical of the national health department’s cumbersome COVID-19 testing protocol.
The mayor decided to focus first on patients with known exposure to cases earlier confirmed by the Department of Health.
“If we want to contain the spread of COVID-19, then we have to test exposed residents, whether or not they have symptoms, and then isolate the new infections,” he said.
This modified process of testing would also allow a new round of contact tracing, said Gatchalian.
He described the first results of the mass testing in his city as “alarming.”
He warned that not testing all persons with exposure to confirmed cases increases the odds of community transmission even with a lockdown.
The city government is spending local funds for the tests, with an initial target of 550, followed by mass testing of health personnel.
The first round will be completed on April 18, with kits sourced from South Korea but using the Philippine health department’s two-day test process.
The mayor said kits and testing cost about US$100 per patient, with a private hospital processing swab samples.
The case in the central Philippine city of Cebu is sobering and raises questions of what the national government risked by delaying the purchase of test kits and authorizing decentralized tests.
On April 16, the Philippine Senate has passed a resolution calling for the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, citing failure in leadership.
President Rodrigo Duterte, however, rejected the call.
The health secretary also got the support of a Catholic bishop who said Duque may not be a perfect leader but “he is delivering something.”
“The fact that the increase of the infection of the virus is not the same with other countries means there is good management involved,” said Bishop Oscar Florencio of the Military Ordinariate.
The prelate said if there is really a need to change Duque, it should come from the president.
“If [the senators] are persistent to remove Duque then let’s wait up to the end of the enhanced community quarantine by the end of April and strategize again,” he said.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said the inter-agency task force handling the government’s COVID-19 response appreciates Duque for “telling it as it is.”
Duque earlier claimed a tight global supply market prevented the arrival of test purchases, but legislators said the government only started looking after a surge in infections.
The Philippines until last week was dependent on donations from China, Singapore, South Korea, and other aid partners.
The health department approved in late March 16 testing centers and has been looking to approve 30 more to meet its target of 8,000 to 10,000 tests daily by the end of this month.
On April 17, Duque ordered test centers to run 24/7 to speed up the processing of results.