EMPLOYEES returning to work should be tested for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to minimize possible transmission by asymptomatic persons, a former Health Secretary said.

Iloilo Representative Janette L. Garin said a worker discovered to be infected has the potential to shut down an entire workplace, resulting in lost productivity and livelihoods.

“The question on whether we need to test people going back to work, not all of them but yes we need to have a baseline of a specific (segment of the) population that can give us a better picture,” Ms. Garin said in a virtual briefing organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

She also said that companies should be allowed to perform rapid tests because they will be shouldering the cost and it would be easier to conduct contact tracing.

“If you have an employee who tests positive (in a) rapid antibody test, then you know where they go home, you know what specific barangays have many patients,” she said.

Ms. Garin added that rapid antibody test and Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test is necessary.

Ms. Garin, a former health secretary, said 40 to 50% of COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic and 80% of the 50 to 60% symptomatic only have mild symptoms.

Dr. Minguita Padilla, head of Project ARK (Antibody Rapid Test Kits), also said that it would be better if workers are tested, citing the risks from asymptomatic carriers.

“It’s better if we could test, that’s my opinion. It’s the opinion of a lot of business people and you cannot blame them,” she said in the forum. “If we could test, it could really, really be much better because there are many things that we can pick up and identify. but we cannot identify just by presuming that just because you are asymptomatic, you don’t have it.”

The Department of Health issued return-to-work guidelines which include the reduction of people in the workplace.

Testing for workers is not required. Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire has said that the protocols are a guide to employers, emphasizing that symptomatic screening is ideal.

The department’s testing policy prioritizes patients and health care workers with severe and mild symptoms, those with a history of travel to infected areas, and those with pre-existing conditions rendering them vulnerable to contracting the disease.

Ms. Garin said the current level of testing is “too small.” She said that automation would make tests affordable and increase daily test productivity.

“We need the private sector and the government to work together, because when we do more tests, we will be able to identify the specific cities, the specific barangays, the specific provinces where there are a lot of COVID cases,” she said.

Ms. Padilla also said the problem lies with procurement and inventory of the DoH.

According to DoH data as of May 23, 272,355 individuals were tested. On May 24, a total of 8,283 were tested. The DoH hopes to conduct 30,000 tests daily by the end of May.

Major companies have declared their intention to test workers, including after concessionaire Maynilad Water Services, Inc., which has started conducting antibody screening tests.

In a statement, Maynilad said before redeployment for field assignments, workers underwent Screening Serologic Antibody Tests, including third-party service providers such as meter readers, desludging personnel, and other contractors.

“Those with positive results in this screening will undergo further coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) tests,” Maynilad said.

The tests are being implemented in partnership with the Delos Santos Medical Center.

The company has also ordered safety measures for re-entry into offices.

Only one third of its employees are returning to their respective workplaces, such as those assigned to water and wastewater operations.

The remainder of Maynilad’s employees will continue to work from home.

Maynilad will also require all of its employees and service providers to practice workplace safety measures such as social distancing, temperature checks, and wearing of personal protective equipment. Facilities will also be disinfected regularly.

Meanwhile, Maynilad said that starting June, it will resume major construction projects, as well as meter reading and onsite billing activities.

“Since the start of the enhanced community quarantine, we have been putting in place new safety policies and procedures to adapt to the so-called ‘new normal’ workplace scenario. This is necessary so we can ensure the continued health and safety of our workers and customers,” Maynilad said.

Metro Pacific Investments Corp., which has majority stake in Maynilad, is one of three Philippine units of Hong Kong-based First Pacific Co. Ltd., the others being Philex Mining Corp. and PLDT Inc. Hastings Holdings, Inc., a unit of PLDT Beneficial Trust Fund subsidiary MediaQuest Holdings, Inc., has an interest in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas and Revin Mikhael D. Ochave