By Betheena Kae Unite and Martin Sadongdong
The first-ever mega swabbing facility in the Philippines was inaugurated Tuesday as the government seeks to ramp up its testing capacity and identify potential coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients.
Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., chief implementer of the National Task Force (NTF) Against COVID-19, said the opening of the mega swabbing center at the Palacio de Maynila along Roxas Boulevard will boost the efforts of the government to detect, isolate, and treat patients.
It is the first among the four mega swabbing facilities that the administration seeks to operationalize.
A total of 72 testing booths were constructed inside the events venue in three days, according to Build, Build, Build Committee Chairperson Anna Mae Lamentillo.
The facility will start massive testing of returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) Wednesday.
“On an 18-hour schedule, we will be able to test 7,680 individuals. On a 12-hour schedule, we will be able to test 5,769 individuals,” Lamentillo said, adding that target for testing are the recently repatriated OFWs.
The swabbing booths are equipped with safety features that would minimize physical contact between healthcare workers undertaking the testing procedure and the person being examined.
The Palacio de Maynila was converted into a mega testing swab center through the help of the Yap Group of Companies, Ayala Group of Companies, Razon Group of Companies, and Villar Group of Companies while the DPWH was in charge of the civil works.
During the Beat COVID-19 virtual press briefing Monday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the country will not be able to defeat the pandemic unless it focuses on early detection.
This is the reason the DOH has tied up with the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) to create mega swabbing centers located at the Philippine Arena Complex in Bulacan (northern sector), Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City (southern sector), Enderun Tent McKinley Hill in Taguig City (eastern sector), and Palacio de Manila on Roxas Boulevard (western sector).
The Enderun Tent McKinley Hill, the Mall of Asia Arena, and the Philippine Arena are scheduled to open to the public this week.
“These mega swabbing facilities can carry out at least 5,000 testings per day,” Galvez said.
The swabbing center in Manila will be manned by 10 teams from the Philippine Coast Guard trained to conduct swabbing procedures. Each team will compose of 14 medical personnel. The Philippine Red Cross, on the other hand, will provide the testing kits.
Vince Dizon, BCDA president and chief executive officer and NTF COVID-19 deputy chief implementer, said the plan to establish swabbing centers was to complement the accreditation of more testing laboratories and building of quarantine centers nationwide.
Vergeire said the mega swabbing centers will help the Philippines achieve its goal of conducting 30,000 tests a day by May 31.
Meanwhile, a portable swabbing test booth was also installed inside the Quezon Institute in Quezon City which is capable of testing two persons at the same time, DPWH Undersecretary Emil Sadain said.
The unit was delivered Monday at Quezon Institute, a hospital operated and managed by the Philippine Tuberculosis Society, Incorporated and among the quarantine facilities of the Department of Health (DOH) for suspected and probable COVID-19 cases.
The portable swabbing booth manufactured by DPWH Bureau of Equipment has complete mechanical exhaust system and self-disinfecting facility using misting and negative pressure room, which prevents cross contamination between rooms.
In a virtual briefing in Malacañang, Dizon said at least 22 testing laboratories have already been set-up nationwide.
By May 30, he said a total of 78 laboratories are expected to be operational as at least 56 more centers are undergoing accreditation from the Department of Health (DOH).
At present, Dizon said the government is capable of conducting more than 5,000 tests per day but it is seen to increase to 30,000 test per day with the completion of the four mega swabbing centers and accreditation of 78 testing laboratories.
He said this will enable the Philippines to be at par with other countries who have invested heavily on COVID-19 testing – Singapore (8,000 tests per day), Israel (13,000 tests), South Korea (20,000 tests), and Germany (120,000 tests).
Aside from frontliners, Dizon said the priority of the government right now is to swab and test 25,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and overseas Filipinos (OFs) who have returned to the country.
This is aimed at decongesting the quarantine facilities in Metro Manila and Greater Metro Manila Area where the OFWs and OFs are being isolated.
Galvez had earlier ordered a week-long temporary suspension of all passenger flights at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) and all other international airports nationwide to free up quarantine centers in Metro Manila beginning May 3.
Various swabbing booths were also put up at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminals 1 and 2 to conduct immediate tests on
returning OFWs and OFs.
“Kapag nagbukas na po ang ating mga airport, immediately paglabas ng ating mga kababayan sa kanilang mga flight i-swa-swab test na sila para lumabas na ang kanilang PCR [polymerase chain reaction] results sa loob ng 24 to 48 hours (If our airports are opened, our returning countrymen will be immediately swabbed upon disembarkation from their flights so that their PCR [polymerase chain reaction] results will be released within 24 to 48 hours),” Dizon said.
“We will save a lot of lives if we ramp up testing lalung-lalo na sa ating mga kababayan na walang kakayahan para magself-isolate (We will save a lot of lives if we ramp up testing especially among our fellowmen who have no capability to self-isolate),” he added.
‘Fast testing is key’
Senator Richard J. Gordon, chairman and CEO of the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) called for organized, systematic mass testing to stem the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Gordon, also chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, said large events places, such as the Mall of Asia, Araneta Coliseum and other similar venues that could hold large crowds, could serve as swabbing sites for the mass testing to ensure that physical distancing would be strictly observed.
“The people can be seated on the bleachers, with people seated on the lower bleachers swabbed first, tapos pag natapos sila, bababa naman ‘yung nasa susunod. The PRC has pulled out all the stops para makapag-test, kailangan mabilis tayo kasi testing is the key. We have to ensure victory over the virus (..after it is finished, the one following the person already swabbed takes over. The PRC has pulled out all the stops for testing. Fast testing is the key),” he said.
Results will be forwarded to DOH which will be responsible for conveying the result to the patients. DOH must keep an accurate, centralized tally of cases, Gordon said.
Gordon said members of marginalized groups who tested positive must be provided with appropriate care.
They will be sent to the quarantine centers and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) must provide their families their essential needs such as food, hygiene items and medication, especially if those who tested positive are bread winners.
“The PRC, the DOH and local government units (LGUs) must closely monitor the health status of the members of the household, in case any of them also develop any symptom of the disease. They may also call PRC Hotline 1158 for free counseling and psycho social support,” he said. (With a report from Mario B. Casayuran)