Doing it right: Israeli experts school PH on successful COVID-19 response

Published June 22, 2021, 1:01 PM

by Martin Sadongdong

There are three important things that the Philippines should do if it wants to imitate Israel’s “successful” battle against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic: aggressive testing, systematic data gathering, and efficient rollout of the vaccination program.

Members of the National Task Force (NTF) Against COVID-19 meet with three medical experts from Israel to share best practices on COVID-19 response of the two governments in a meeting at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on June 21, 2021. (Photo courtesy of NTF Against COVID-19)

This was the message emphasized by Ben Zaken, Dafna Segol, and Adam Segal, the three visiting experts from Israel’s Ministry of Health during their first meeting with the National Task Force (NTF) Against COVID-19, the country’s primary task force created to address the health crisis, at Camp Aguinaldo on Monday, June 21.

The experts are in the country until June 25 to share Israel’s best practices in its COVID-19 response.

However, these things have already been known by the government from the early days of the pandemic last year yet the country is still far from achieving herd immunity or what it calls “population protection.”

So what went wrong?

Testing, border control

According to Zaken, deputy director general of the Ichilov Medical Center, Israel’s leading multidisciplinary healthcare institution, aggressive testing was done immediately in their country to detect the carriers of the coronavirus.

(From left to right) Israeli experts Adam Segal, Dafna Segol, and Ben Zaken share their country’s best practices on COVID-19 response with the National Task Force Against COVID-19 in a meeting at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on June 21, 2021. (Photo courtesy of NTF Against COVID-19)

Those who tested positive were then isolated from the community and treated.

“People would walk with other people, they would shake hands but they would do RT-PCR tests every week. Policemen and traffic enforcers were also being tested every week,” said Zaken.

“We provide more testing to the people who would want to take them anytime for free,” Zaken added.

In the Philippines, the government conducted “targeted testing” as it refused to conduct “mass testing” in the beginning of the pandemic due to lack of test kits.

In May 2020, Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque erroneously claimed that no country could ever conduct mass testing as it would entail the testing of the “entire population.” But advocates had said mass testing refers to the testing of a wider scope of the population to easily detect the sick people.

Since then, the government has provided COVID-19 tests for free as testing centers were established by local government units (LGUs).

But the long period before an individual gets tested prompts some to go to the hospitals and pay P4,500 to P5,000 for a real time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test, the “gold standard” in COVID-19 testing. Public facilities are also allowed to charge P3,800 for a swab test.

Latest available data showed that around 14.5 million cumulative samples were tested as of June 19, according to the Department of Health’s website. The data has not been updated as of writing.

Meanwhile, Segol, consultant of Israel’s Healthcare Policy and Innovation, stressed that their people’s strict adherence to quarantine measures and border protocols was crucial in bringing down COVID-19 cases.

“Everyone who enters Israel has to take a PCR test, be vaccinated, and quarantined for 14 days,” Segol said.

The same border control policy is being implemented by the Philippines. The national government requires a 14-day mandatory quarantine and an RT-PCR on the seventh day for returning Filipinos before they are released.

But Cebu has implemented its own policy where returning Filipinos undergo a swab test, which health experts said is not as accurate as RT-PCR, on the day of their arrival. If the returning Filipino tests negative, s/he is allowed to proceed to the area of destination without undergoing quarantine.

NTF Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez Jr. has raised concern on Cebu’s border control policy which he called “very, very dangerous.”

“Ang ginagawa po ng Cebu ay very, very dangerous as compared sa stringent policy na ginagawa po abroad (What Cebu is doing is very, very dangerous as compared to the stringent policy being implemented abroad),” Galvez said at President Duterte’s pre-recorded public briefing aired on Monday night, June 21.

He urged LGUs to be vigilant as the threat of COVID-19 variants, including the more transmissible and severe Delta variant first detected in India, could cause an overwhelming COVID-19 outbreak if border coountrol is not strictly monitored.

Transparency on data gathering, vaccination program

The members of the Israeli delegation also identified the main pillars of their country’s immunization program.

They said the immunization program was flexible so that it could effectively respond to emerging realities on the ground.

Their medical personnel also maximize the doses from each vial to avoid wastage and ensure the fast and efficient administration of the vaccines.

Lastly, they said their government’s information campaign on the vaccine program was anchored on clear messaging to increase public uptake while ensuring efficient data gathering.

Proper storage of the vaccines in one central location is also encouraged.

Segal, a logistics and operations manager, is scheduled to meet with representatives with the United Nations and World Health Organization, and visit cold chain facilities and vaccination hubs during their week-long stay in the country.

“The data and information are keys to succeed in this battle. Everyday, we monitor the data by location and severity, where the traffic of the virus [is] and its location, and how many people are getting vaccinated everyday which are crucial in managing the pandemic,” Zaken explained.

The Philippines has its own data monitoring team from the DOH to record updates on COVID-19 cases, and a separate inter-agency group to monitor the status of the vaccination program: the National Vaccination Operations Center (NVOC).

The two monitoring teams usually release information on new daily cases, recoveries, and deaths; and updates on the number of people who are getting vaccinated daily as well as the arrival of vaccine deliveries.

According to Segol, their team also helped in developing the prioritization scheme for the various sectors which include medical personnel and health frontliners, senior citizens, aid workers and teachers, and the rest of the population from the oldest to the youngest.

In the Philippines, these are adopted as A1 to A5 priority sectors. A1 refers to medical frontline workers, A2 are senior citizens, A3 are persons with co-morbidities, A4 are economic frontliners, and A5 are indigent populations.

The vaccination started on March 1 after the country secured its first doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the last week of February, a year after the country was placed on lockdown.

As of June 20, the country has 1,359,015 cases with 1.2 million recoveries and 23,621 deaths.

Meanwhile, Israel rolled out its vaccination program in September 2020. Since then, their government has fully vaccinated 57 percent of its total 9.2 million population wherein 90 percent of those aged 50 and above have completed their inoculation.

After seven months or in April this year, Israel already lifted its mask-wearing policy as the country recorded less than 15 cases per day.

Israel has recorded a total of 840,000 cases including 6,500 deaths.