More efficient contact tracing needed at this crucial time

Published December 9, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Manila Bulletin


The country may be “winning” its battle versus COVID-19 with round-the-clock nationwide vaccinations and with hospitals registering zero new COVID admissions in the past few days. The reality, however, is that the pandemic is not yet over. There is still a need to enforce strict health protocols and to make sure more jabs land on the arms of citizens.

By now, the country should have learned its pandemic lessons well. But judging by the latest news, it seems that our authorities are forgetting one important aspect of virus control aside from vaccinations and health protocols: contact tracing.

Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that the department is still having “difficulties” in locating eight travelers from South Africa who arrived in the country between Nov. 15 and Nov. 29, 2021. The travelers, the department said, may have “provided the wrong contact information and a fake address in the Philippines.”

This case is not new. Contact tracing remains a challenge in the country as some people do not provide accurate contact information, whether it is written on a paper form or via an app activated by a QR code. It still remains a mystery why contact tracing is still not yet fool-proof considering that we are already 20 months into the pandemic. The case of the “unreachable tourists” is an alarming sign that our borders may not be fully able to monitor the entry of virus variants from abroad, something that had happened to our country at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Whether these South African tourists may bring in the Omicron variant is not the issue here as the virus knows no nationality, economic status, gender, or location. What is worrisome is that this has been the case several times now and there is still no plausible—or efficient—contact tracing system in place. The Omicron variant will not be the last of its kind and scientists have already warned us that we have to “live and survive” with the virus, so having a working contact tracing system in place is one of the ways to help stop its spread.

In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has already stressed the importance of contact tracing. It is a “key strategy for interrupting chains of transmission of the virus and reducing COVID-19 associated mortality.”

Dr. Gregory Poland, a Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert, said: “The whole idea, and this is really important in the beginning of an outbreak in order to contain it, is to understand who’s infected and then in broader and broader rings, trace who might have been exposed―and therefore who might have been infected. If you can do that quickly and effectively, and efficiently, you can dramatically decrease the impact of a pandemic.”

Contact tracing is not a by-product of this pandemic as it is a time-tested public health strategy and was effectively used to control the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the SARS outbreak in 2003. In fact, with the advent of technology and internet, the accessibility of smartphones, and the usability of apps, there is no reason or excuse why an efficient, reliable, and encompassing contact tracing system couldn’t be put in place.

This is not the time to celebrate. Other countries are experiencing once more a resurgent wave of COVID infections. The new variant may be more sinister so it would be better if this could be kept off our country as long as possible.

At this time, travel couldn’t be halted and totally closing our borders is not feasible. But the least our authorities could do is to implement an efficient contact tracing system so that each and every one who will enter our country is accounted for. Penalize the ones who will provide the wrong information, reach out to their embassies, and do everything possible to find them, even alerting our police or utilizing the reach of media and online platforms. We—especially our medical frontliners, our businesspeople, and the citizenry in general—can’t afford a restart of the pandemic.