By Ellson Quismorio
Both Majority and Minority congressmen find wisdom in the mandatory public disclosure of personal information relating to COVID-19 patients, a measure that was adopted by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases over the weekend.
“Necessary naman talaga ito at ginagawa as best practices ng ibang bansa, like South Korea (This is, indeed, necessary and is considered as among best practices of other countries, like South Korea),” House Minority Bloc member, ACT-Teachers Party-List Rep. France Castro, said of the IATF’s move.
“Nilinaw naman na (It has been clarified that) patients must disclose data to DOH (Department of Health), but DOH will not publicize if [it’s] unnecessary [for] contact tracing. Siguro for this part kailangan strict ang DOH (the DOH should be strict on this),” Castro added.
Majority solons Anakalusugan Party-List Rep. Mike Defensor, Puwersa ng Bayaning Atleta (PBA) Party-list Rep. Jericho Nograles, and AKO-Bicol Party-List Rep. Alfredo Garbin also supported the directive, saying it will be of huge help to the government’s contact tracing efforts as far as positive cases are concerned.
“That should have been the case from the start… Contact tracing is primordial [sic] to stop the spread of the virus. It is also in the patient’s interest to protect his or her family and friends from getting infected,” Defensor said.
“To be clear though, the Public Health Emergency Law prohibited [public disclosure] unless ordered by the court. So the DOH can’t be blamed for it. The context was to protect the the human rights of the patient and to spare him public humiliation and discrimination, as in the case for AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). But this situation is different and there is nothing to be embarrassed about with COVID-19. We need to know the people and somehow establish their whereabouts to trace the virus,” explained the Committee on Health vice chairman.
Defensor went as far as saying that the Public Health Emergency Law allows access to patients’ information even without their consent, as some special cases might dictate such need.
“The PMA (Philippine Medical Association) is asking patients to voluntary allow authorities to reveal their personal info and for the DOH to use it prudently. My thinking is that under the Emergency act, there may be no need for patients consent,” Defensor added. “Ang problem kasi ‘pag [nasa] ICU (intensive care unit) or wala ng consciousness. Dapat pwede pa rin gamitin yung information kahit hindi na kayang mag consent (The problem is with patients in the ICU or those who are unconscious. The information should still be usable despite the inability to give consent).”
Nograles says he doesn’t see any conflict with existing privacy laws on the issue. “The IATF statement and directive is not against the Constitution and the laws. However, the public must be warned that the misuse of mishandling of the medical information is still punishable by law,” he said.
“Patients with communicable diseases such as COVID-19 or persons who may have contact with patients [with] communicable diseases must disclose to public health officers their circumstances, provided that public health officers should treat the information with proper confidentiality,” Nograles added.
For his part, Justice panel vice chairman Garbin reckoned that personal rights and liberty should take the backseat “if what is at stake is public health, public safety, and the general welfare of the populace.”
“The justification is for the prevention of the spreading of infectious disease. We are dealing with an invisible enemy and immediate contact tracing here is indispensable,” the lawyer-congressman pointed out.
Meanwhile, Former DOH secretary and now Iloilo 1st district Rep. Janette Loreto-Garin proposed a “mindset change” that the Health department supposedly needs to make moving forward in the public health emergency.
“While this (public disclosure) can be a laudable step towards better contact tracing, a major step that should be corrected is the mindset of the Department of Health,” she said.
“Enhanced contact tracing efforts should be accompanied by DOH’s willingness to test more patients. We need mass-testing now,” stressed Garin, who is a Deputy Minority Leader.
“Many COVID patients did not know how they got it. Many do not even know they have it or ‘they had it’. To aggravate this, swabs and transport media have not been prepositioned to critical/ strategic areas. Contact tracing should be accompanied by a less restrictive algortithm on who to test,” she said. (Ellson A. Quismorio)