By Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporter

EIGHTEEN prisoners and staff members at one of the Philippines’ city jails have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the jail bureau.

Chief Inspector Xavier Solda, a spokesman for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), told reporters on Friday they were “doing extensive contact tracing” after nine inmates and nine staff workers were infected.

The nine prisoners had been transferred to an isolation facility in Payatas, Quezon City from the city jail, Mr. Solda said. Prison workers who tested positive for the coronavirus disease 2019 were in quarantine, he added.

Mr. Solda said all jail personnel at the Quezon City Jail have been tested for the COVID-19 virus.

“We are doing an extensive contact tracing. We have a team assigned to it,” he told a news briefing.

Gabriel Chaklag, spokesman for the Bureau of Corrections, said there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the national penitentiary but nine inmates were being monitored. Fourteen other prisoners at the Correctional Institute for Women were also under monitoring, he added.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to act fast and release some detainees.

“Finding that COVID-19 has infected 18 inmates and personnel at the Quezon City Jail shows why it’s so critical the government actively pursues early release of detainees charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses, as well as the sick and older inmates,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW, said in a statement.

“The government needs to act urgently to mitigate what could be a catastrophe inside the country’s overcrowded prisons before it’s too late,” he said.

More than 20 prisoners who claimed to be vulnerable to the virus earlier asked the Supreme Court to allow their release on bail on humanitarian grounds.

The Supreme Court on Friday ordered the government to comment on the lawsuit.

Several groups including the House of Representatives Makabayan bloc and Judicial Reform Initiative have also called on the court to order the release of the prisoners.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health reported 218 new infections on Friday, bringing the total to 5,878.

Twenty-five more patients died, raising the death toll to 387, it said in a bulletin. Fifty-two more patients have gotten well, bringing the total recoveries to 487, it added.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said 766 health workers — 339 of them doctors and 242 nurses — had tested positive for the virus. Twenty-two of them have died, she said.

She said recoveries have spiked because patients considered as probable COVID-19 cases were treated early while awaiting test results.

Ms. Vergeire also said the country now had 17 testing centers after the Chinese General Hospital was certified.

She said testing centers processed 4,000 samples on Thursday, or half of the 8,000 target capacity by the end of the month.