Jail mass tests planned as infections near 8,000

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By Vann Marlo M. Villegas , Reporter

THE Department of Health is planning to conduct mass testing for COVID-19 infections in the country’s overcrowded jails to avert a contagion, as the national tally neared 8,000.

“We are studying how to go about it and what type of test will be administered,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said at a news briefing on Tuesday.

The Department of Interior and Local Government, which oversees local jails, will set up temporary quarantine facilities to isolate inmates, she said.

With 215,000 prisoners nationwide, Philippine jails and prisons are overfilled more than five times their official capacity, making it the most overcrowded prison system in the world, according to the World Prison Brief, a database kept by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research at the University of London.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health reported 181 new infections yesterday, bringing the total to 7,958

Nineteen more patients died, raising the death toll to 530, it said in a bulletin. Forty-three more patients have gotten well, bringing the total recoveries to 975, it added.

Ms. Vergeire said 1,336 healthcare workers — 493 doctors, 507 nurses, 74 nursing assistants, 47 medical technologists, 28 radiologic technologists, 11 midwives and 11 respiratory therapists — have tested positive for the coronavirus disease 2019 virus.

Twenty-nine of them have died.

She also said 84,738 individuals have been tested — 9,858 were positive, while 74,743 were negative.

Ms. Vergeire said the positive results were greater than the reported confirmed cases because they include tests that must be validated and processed. She 19 laboratories can test 6,320 samples daily.

As of 2017, the Philippines had 933 jails — seven national prisons and 926 city, district, municipal and provincial jails, which are not enough to contain inmates, three-quarters of whom are at the pre-trial stage, WPB said on its website.

Many jails in the Philippines fail to meet the minimum United Nations standards given inadequate food, poor nutrition and unsanitary conditions.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has urged the government of President Rodrigo R. Duterte to act fast and release some detainees to prevent a major health catastrophe.

“Without quick action to significantly reduce overcrowding, the Bureau of Corrections could find itself facing thousands of seriously sick prisoners and no way to quarantine or care for them,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said earlier.

Several groups have called for the release of inmates who are elderly and have underlying medical conditions to address prison congestion.

Ms. Vergeire said the Justice department, which oversees the country’s prisons that hold prisoners with a jail sentence of more than three years, had sought the Health department’s help on protocols to follow once inmates are released.

“We would like that these people are tested before they go back to their communities,” she said. Prisoners who have symptoms or who tested positive for the virus must be isolated before being released, she added.

Nine inmates and nine staff at the Quezon City Jail near the capital, and more than 210 at the Cebu City Jail have been infected, adding to worries about contagion risks in the country’s jails.

At least 48 inmates and a staff member at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City have also tested positive for COVID-19. The first confirmed inmate at the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City died on April 23.

Twenty-two political prisoners who claim to be at risk of dying if they get infected have asked the Supreme Court to allow their release through bail on humanitarian grounds.

The Justice department earlier approved a Board of Pardons and Parole order easing the requirements for pardon and executive clemency.

The Office of the Court Administrator has also ordered trial judges to enforce a six-year-old rule allowing the release of prisoners who have served the minimum penalty for their sentences.