Flawed COVID tests can mislead planners
THREE months and 13 days after the first local coronavirus death in February, it looks like the Philippines still does not have a fairly accurate measurement of the spread and severity of the public health emergency that has killed 751 and infected 11,350 Filipinos so far.
The tentative status reports of Malacañang indicate that either the government does not have reliable figures for fine-tuning its response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic or it is not using the data to the optimum.
Reporting after his meeting Monday with the inter-agency task force plotting strategy, President Duterte chose to talk more about the threat of the New People’s Army than the “New Normal” after the May 15 transition of the lockdown that had paralyzed much of the country.
The Department of Health promises to step up tests to get reliable data for tracing and treating people infected with the virus from China that has infected more than 4,340,000 people worldwide and killed at least 292,405. The tests should also show the total local picture.
To fill in Duterte’s hour-long scanty report, his spokesman Harry Roque announced the designating of Metro Manila, the provinces, and specific areas as either Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) or General Community Quarantine (GCQ) areas after Friday. Until May 31, Metro Manila, Cebu City and Laguna will remain under MECQ.
The classifications running along geographical boundaries are based presumably on the task force’s interpretation of test results in the areas. Exerting heavy pressure in the background is the administration’s anxiety to restart the economy stalled by the two-month-old lockdown.
In the 16 cities and one town comprising Metro Manila, there could be pocket areas with unique circumstances that should make them exceptions to the MECQ. In such situations, we think the opinion of the elected local executives should be given weight.
In a MECQ area, businesses engaged in essential services will be allowed to partially operate, subject to strict quarantine measures, according to Roque.
The difference between MECQ and GCQ areas is mainly in the extent that people are allowed to leave home and resume their pre-quarantine activities, that businesses and public transportation are normalized but on a lower scale. In all cases, people are to wear masks, carry identification, keep their safe distance and not gather in big crowds.
Even that is too hazy a definition to be left to the police to enforce. When is a crowd deemed to be big? What does “partially operate” mean for stores and businesses? What will be the status of their workers? What will happen to overdue bills? Et cetera….
What rule applies when a resident of a MECQ area like Metro Manila wants to travel, for a legitimate purpose, to a less restrictive GCQ area just across the border? Will his passage be left to the discretion of the police manning the checkpoints?
There should be ready answers to these and a host of other questions since the lifting of the lockdown is not entirely unexpected. The authorities in control had the time to prepare for the coming of the next phase leading to the New Normal.
Some of the big problems are that (1) there are not enough reliable test data to go by, (2) the virus does not recognize geographical boundaries, (3) millions of people who have lost their jobs or sole means of livelihood are starving, and (4) the government is running low on funds.
Sure, everybody was caught by surprise by the novel coronavirus. But the government’s responses could have been better planned, as they were with some neighbors whose deft handling kept fatalities low while not totally suspending economic activity.
We prefer to see the DoH saying if the tests upon which its reports are based are the rapid antigen variety or the molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) types. Rapid tests have shown some persons negative of the virus but who were later found to be positive, or vice versa.
The antigen test kits cost less and their results are obtained faster. But their negative results may have to be confirmed with a PCR test before any decision on treatment is made — to prevent the possible spread of the virus because of the false negative finding.
Some countries have returned their stock of test kits, found to be alarmingly inaccurate, bought from a big Asian supplier. We wonder if the test kits acquired by the administration from the same source, donated or purchased, are being used.
The unreliability of some test kits and their use in aggressive mass testing could render test reports suspect. They could be as unreliable as the surveys of polling outfits that claim having interviewed 1,200 random adults from a universe of 106 million Filipinos.
The results of a hasty mass testing showing the number of people infected, killed and recovered could mislead planners if inaccurate. A misreading of the actual situation could be disastrous.
A low infection count, for instance, does not necessarily mean fewer people are being contaminated, or that preventive measures, such as lockdowns, have been effective. The supposed flattening of the curve, or its plateauing, may be illusory.
Were most of the DoH tests done in one convenient location, or in a densely populated area, or spread out over a wider representative sample region? That detail has to be clarified if only to disabuse the minds of cynics that dubious data are being used to prettify the picture.
It cannot be helped that idle minds which have multiplied during the lockdown start suspecting that DoH figures on infections and deaths are being made to appear smaller to validate somebody’s saying early on that the veerus, don’t worry, would soon go away by itself.
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