Contact tracing, weakest link in fight against COVID-19

Published July 8, 2020, 2:54 PM

by Minerva Newman

CEBU CITY – Officials of the inter-agency task force (IATF) COVID-19 for the Visayas admitted in a press conference here Tuesday that contact racing was the weakest link, not only in Cebu City’s, but in the country’s fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

“In our fight against corona virus, the IATF adopted a three-pronged weapon system approach that include the strict enforcement of health and safety quarantine protocols; efficient mass rapid testing and strong contact tracing,” Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, who is currently the chief COVID-19 implementor in the Visayas, told the media.

And to help Cebu City strengthen its contact tracing capabilities, the IATF invited the team of Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong to train medical health workers, doctors and nurse, law enforcers and investigators of the PNP develop an intensified contact tracing strategy, the best practice in Baguio City in its COVID-19 response.

Magalong said his team hoped to effectively train the Cebu contact tracing teams on the various technology and systems that they applied in Baguio City and in the Cordillera region. 

But he pointed out that, with more than 6,000 COVID-19 cases here, the existing 35 teams may not be enough.

“The more teams, the better because contact tracing is the most stressful strategy in containing the virus.  Contact tracers must be specific in tracing/working on COVID-19 cases.  Some cases have several or multiple health problems,” Magalong advised that as much as possible, only two cases will be assigned to one team to avoid overwhelming the contact tracers, he added.

Cimatu said that, as far as the strict implementation and enforcement of the quarantine health and safety policies, guidelines and protocols were concerned, there were some challenges in the people’s compliance and behavioral attitudes towards physical social distancing and stay home policies at the onset of the pandemic in March or April not only here in Cebu City by in the entire country.

As people saw the government’s resolve to enforce quarantine protocols, people slowly gravitated towards the new norms of wearing mask, social distancing especially in public places and regular hand washing.

“We see a tremendous change in people’s behavior, especifically here in Cebu City, and their compliance to the health and safety protocols that somehow slowed down the virus transmission in areas such as Barangay Mambaling and Sitio Tejero in Barangay Luz which had the highest number of COVID-19 transmission,” Cimatu said.

Parallel to quarantine protocols was the massive rapid testing, and efficient contact tracing of COVID-19 cases with the establishment of barangay isolation centers and quarantine facilities in the City so as not to overwhelm private and government hospitals.

According to the IATF, the establishment of barangay isolation centers and five quarantine facilities here have immensely contributed to the decongestion of private hospitals in Cebu City. 

“We have enough spaces in our barangay isolation centers and quarantine facilities that can accommodate more than 2,000 mild and asymptomatic COVID-19 patients, only about 900 to 1,000 beds have been used,” said Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella.

For massive and rapid tests, the Office of the Presidential Assistant for the Visayas (OPAV) launched and implemented the Project Balik Buhay program with the IATF that undertook the tri-cities prevalence survey and mass testing that helped local officials to determine when to relax quarantine restrictions, and allow the gradual resumption of businesses.

OPAV Secretary Michel Lloyd Dino earlier explained that the strategic mass testing provided local officials with a wise, scientific, evidence-based, data-driven approach to really see the extent of the virus spread in Cebu.

“We had a problem with contact tracing before but now, we have improved.  We have an existing 35 teams of 5 in each team of contact tracers, but it seems these are not enough, and we have organized 18 teams more with additional testing kits and improved in the number of days for test results to come out from a week to 2 days.” Labella said.

The members of the IATF in its regular media briefings in Cebu has underlined the urgency and importance of a strong and efficient contact tracing activities as a major factor in flattening the curb of COVID-19 cases in Cebu City after it saw some spikes in May and June.