By Patricia B. Mirasol

More testing along with mindful adherence to hygiene practices will allow companies and employees to exist with COVID-19, said Iloilo District 1 Congresswoman and Project ARK-PCR Private Sector Chief Implementer Janette L. Garin at the project’s Balik Kabuhayan webinar held on July 14.

“When health meets economy, when testing fills the gap in making social distancing, hygiene practices, and other new normal behaviors more effective, we can exist with COVID-19,” she said.

Project ARK is a private sector-led initiative that aims to make massive testing possible through Antibody Rapid test Kits.

Project ARK has partnered with 437 companies to date, with 1,788,628 total kits procured so far for the workforce.

Its second phase involves a pooled testing method, which will maximize limited resources. Using this method, swab samples of multiple individuals go through a single reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test, which is more sensitive and accurate than an antibody rapid test.

If a positive result surfaces from a single batch of pooled tests, further individual assessments will be made. The test is designed to be sensitive enough to come up positive when at least one sample in the batch is positive. If the swab test of multiple individuals comes back negative, then individual tests need not be performed.

Ongoing research focuses on pools of five, 10, and 20 samples. “Implementation will depend on the output of this. We need to have early testing so we can have early isolation,” Dr. Garin said. “Pooled PCR testing allows us to balance both health and economy.”

Pooled testing will reduce the cost of a PCR test, which costs P1,500 to P2,000, by P350 to P375.

If the pooled method is effective, it will be used to test workers in the construction and business process outsourcing sectors, as well as returning overseas Filipino workers. Dr. Garin is eyeing the end of July for its rollout. The areas that will be covered by the pooled PCR testing are Makati, Mandaluyong, Cebu, and Zamboanga.

Dr. Gisela Concepcion, President of the Philippine-American Academy of Science & Engineering, gave recommendations for the protection and hygiene of the workforce, including:

• Staggered, low-density work schedules and workplace seating arrangements;

• Education through signs and flyers as well as constant reminders on hygiene best practices such as the use of the proper type of face masks and entry shoe baths;

• A healthy and balanced diet in addition to vitamin and mineral supplements;

• Good ventilation and dry, clean air exchange in offices and public transport; and

• Support for MSMEs to jumpstart operations in regulated conditions and produce more environment-friendly products and services.

“Let’s not be too ambitious about bringing the economy back to top level,” said Dr. Concepcion.

Dr. Garin also emphasized open-air spaces being safer than enclosed ones. “Open-air is a lot better than air-conditioned rooms. When in an airconditioned room, don’t stay long, especially if you don’t have a HEPA filter,” she said, referring to a High-Efficiency Particulate Air filter, a type of mechanical air filter.

The Iloilo Congresswoman also offered advice on public transport, as some vehicles may have barriers that may not have been thoroughly disinfected. “Air-conditioned jeepneys are more contagious than open-air ones. (Open-air) jeepneys and tricycles actually eliminate a lot of infection.”

Dr. Dominga “Minguita” Padilla, Project ARK medical team leader, commented on several hospitals in Metro Manila announcing that they have reached their full capacity of allocated COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) beds.

“We still have beds for COVID cases that are non-ICU. We also have beds for non-COVID cases. It’s only too much when hospitals are overrun and we can’t even treat the non-COVID cases anymore. Malayo pa naman tayo dun. [We’re far from that scenario.] It’s not yet a cause for concern per se but we also need to protect those who are non-COVID cases,” she said.

“We don’t fear the virus as much as we respect the virus. Go about your lives but with respect to the virus. Be sure to follow these three steps diligently: wear a mask; practice physical distancing; and wash your hands,” said Dr. Padilla.