THE health care sector’s ability to deal with the pandemic has grown based on metrics like testing capacity, but hospitals are under pressure due to rising costs as well as a sharp decline in non-coronavirus patients, health officials and industry representatives said.

Speaking at the BusinessWorld Insights Forum, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said 52 laboratories nationwide are now licensed to test for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) disease, with an overall capacity of 34,000 tests a day, compared with 300 at the start of the pandemic.

“For now we are engaging with all our partners, especially the private sector,” she said, noting the role it has played in conducting swab tests and managing returning overseas Filipino workers, among others.

Close to 19,000 Filipinos have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 900 have died, according to the Department of Health.

Saturnino Javier, the medical director at Makati Medical Center (MMC), said the hospital is confronting issues of declining occupancy and admissions due to the postponement of purely elective procedures and the inability of patients to consult because of the closure of doctors’ clinics.

This was accompanied by higher costs due to the need to use more personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.

He acknowledged that a recovery in hospital admissions will require confidence in the safety of the facilities, which MMC is addressing by instituting safety measures like PPE and isolation zones.

An opportunity has arisen to practice telemedicine given the safety fears, he added.

“We fully embrace (telemedicine) as a form of connecting with our patient populations,” he said in the same forum.

Director Irene B. Dumlao, who represented the Department of Social Welfare and Development at the forum, said the department is preparing to distribute the second tranche of cash aid to low-income Filipinos affected by the lockdown.

She said the second round of cash distributions of between P5,000 and P8,000 will be assisted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police. More payouts will also be made via “cashless” platforms like GCash and PayMaya.

She said the department was able to distribute the first tranche to around 13.8 million families.

Butch Meily, president of the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (PDRF), said aside from raising money for procurement of ventilators, test kits, protective equipment, the organization is also supporting small businesses to help in the economic recovery.

He said the PDRF is assisting 400 neighborhood “sari-sari” stores in Metro Manila with the help of a consortium of consumer goods and telecommunications companies.

“The idea is to provide a package of goods to (store) owners so they can restart their stores because the problem is we found in a survey that up to 40% of them have closed either due to health concerns or because, to be honest, many of their consumers were not able to purchase their goods,” Mr. Meily said.

Mr. Meily told the BusinessWorld Insights Forum that the most vital items of legislation currently making their way through Congress are those dealing with assistance for businesses seeking to resume operations.

“So many of them have closed and people are struggling, they’re scared and they’re struggling. They’re being knocked back to poverty because they’re using up those savings,” he said.

He also said that having a National ID ready at the time of the pandemic would have helped with contact tracing and aid distribution.

Ms. Dumlao said any legislation should take into consideration the proposed roles of government and private sector, and proposed consultations to identify areas for collaboration.

“From there we could probably submit our recommendation to our policy actors or legislative actors so that they could study it further and pass it to a particular legislative measure,” she said.

Mr. Javier, said the Philippines is not “running out of laws, they just have to be implemented very well.”

He said any laws or regulations should ensure the steady flow of medicine, particularly test kits, while holding down prices of key supplies like N95 masks for health care workers.

“I think the idea is not to draft new laws but to put muscle and teeth into the existing laws,” he said. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas