DoH: Test kits enough, but not other supplies and logistics for labs

THE Department of Health (DoH) said the country has sufficient testing kits for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), but related supplies and logistics for laboratories are a challenge.

Marami po tayong supplies ng testing kits (We have a lot of testing kit supply). It is sufficient for our needs. What we are having problems with right now are the other logistics for the laboratories, ‘yung ibang (other) reagents,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said in a virtual press briefing.

Some equipment, she added, are “very hard to source out because there is international competition.”

As of May 15, the DoH said a total of 207,823 individuals have been tested while remaining available test kits are 829,982.

Meanwhile, Ms. Vergeire said the test kits developed by scientists from the University of the Philippines-National Institutes of Health were recalled following minor problems found by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).

The problems, which she did not disclose, are now being addressed.

“(T)hey are on to the final stages of correcting the identified deficiencies,” she said, adding that the RITM might be able to revalidate the kits by next week.

Meanwhile, Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion asserted that it’s “better to test than not to test” after medical groups said rapid test kits for COVID-19 have a high rate of false positives.

In a Laging Handa briefing on Wednesday, Mr. Concepcion said undertaking rapid testing is a means to get the economy moving again.

Kung magsasarado ulit ang economy ng Pilipinas, marami ulit ang mawawalan ng trabaho (If we close the economy of the Philippines again, a lot of people again will lose jobs),” he said.

Lockdown restrictions have been eased starting May 16, with more industries allowed to resume operations. Private companies are required to implement safety standards, including monitoring the health condition of workers.

Mr. Concepcion initiated Project ARK, a program backed by the private sector that is undertaking massive testing using antibody rapid kits.

In another development, a lawmaker recommended that the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) impose a ceiling on the cost of testing for COVID-19 instead of the current predetermined case rates.

Marikina Rep. Stella Luz A. Quimbo, speaking during a hearing of the House Defeat COVID-19 committee, said “if the case rate is set too high, katulad sa ngayon (like now), the excess goes to the hospital or the laboratory.”

Citing an example, she explained that if the testing cost is P3,000 and the PhilHealth case rate is P8,000, the P5,000 balance goes to the “hospital as profits.”

“It’s not right, especially now na kulang tayo sa (that we have limited) resources,” she said.

Ms. Quimbo added that PhilHealth should update the ceiling regularly in line with prevailing price adjustments.

PhilHealth Medical Specialist Marvin C. Galvez said they will look into the lawmaker’s proposal.

“We will consider po the proposal. To be clear, the proposal is to apply the payment mechanism ‘fee-for-service’ for testing COVID-19? We will look into it,” he said.

Based on PhilHealth’s 2020-0010 circular, the packages for COVID-19 testing are as follows: P8,150 if all services for the testing are provided by the testing laboratory; P5,450 if test kits are donated to the laboratory; and P2,710 if test kits are donated to the laboratory and the cost of running the facility is included in the facility’s budget. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Gillian M. Cortez, and Genshen L. Espedido

Digitized system for international passengers to be launched

THE Bureau of Immigration is developing a digitized system for international passenger information to improve the monitoring system and avoid physical contact amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) threat.

In a statement, Commissioner Jaime H. Morente said they will launch “as soon as possible” an advanced passenger processing and information system that will use digitized arrival cards and boarding passes.

Mr. Morente said these new protocols will facilitate contact tracing if needed, aside from observing social distancing between officers and passengers.

The commissioner said they are discussing the mechanics and procedures for the implementation of the digitized system with different airlines, which is already being used in many developed countries.

Griton SP. Medina, Port Operations Division chief, said Philippine-bound passengers will have to fill out at their port of origin the digitized arrival card prior to their departure.

He added that they will urge airlines to use QR or bar codes in passenger’s phones or devices as boarding passes.

“This will create a fully paperless transaction during immigration assessment, reduce the risk of transmission, and allow for more efficient monitoring,” he said. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas

Duterte says prison term awaits local officials involved in cash aid anomalies

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte said he will make sure that local officials found to be involved in anomalies on the distribution of emergency cash aid will face jail time.

“I will see to it that you go to prison,” he said in a taped talk late Tuesday night.

The national government’s cash aid under the social amelioration program (SAP), intended for poor families affected by the lockdown due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), are distributed through local government units.

Interior Secretary Eduardo A. Año said they are questioning 48 mayors who have less than 80% accomplishment of SAP distribution in their areas.

There are also 183 barangay officials being investigated for alleged corruption involving the SAP funds. Several officials have already been arrested. — Gillian M. Cortez

House to resume hearings on ABS-CBN franchise next week

THE House committee on legislative franchises will convene next week to tackle proposals seeking a 25-year franchise for ABS-CBN Corp., House Speaker Alan Peter S.Cayetano said on Tuesday.

Mr. Cayetano, in an interview over radio DzMM, said the decision on the franchise renewal may be ready after President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July.

“I foresee that the hearings would not go beyond July, and by August, after President Duterte’s SONA, we should be ready to decide,” he said.

He added that deliberations will continue during Congress’ recess starting June 5.

Congress will be on a nearly two-month break before it reopens for the second regular session on July 27.

“The deliberations by the committee on legislative franchises will continue during our recess. They will not stop until they are finished so that no one can say we’re stopping the process or dragging our feet,” he said, adding that the committee will likely hold two to three hearings a week.

He pointed out that the committee would look into “no more than 10 issues” in relation to ABS-CBN’s proposed new franchise, including the network’s alleged violations of tax and labor laws, breaches of the terms and conditions of its previous broadcast privilege, and ownership issues.

ABS-CBN went off-air on May 5 following the issuance of a cease and desist order by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC). The network’s franchise expired on May 4.

Meanwhile, a Senate leader said on Wednesday that the House of Representatives should have pushed for the passage of ABS-CBN’s provisional franchise to prevent retrenchment of the network’s employees.

Before scheduling the 25-year franchise hearings, House Bill No. 6732 containing a provisional license for the broadcast firm was already passed last week on initial reading.

Kaya sa aking tingin, wala pong prangkisa na maaprubahan bago mag-June 3. Kaya dapat itinuloy na nila ‘yung 5 buwang provisional franchise (The way I see it, there will be no franchise approved by June 3. The five-month provisional franchise should have been pursued),” Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon said in a separate interview over the same radio station on Wednesday.

“Nobody will get harmed (if we give a) provisional franchise (to) ABS-CBN… Ang masasagasaan ‘yung (Those who will be thrown under the bus are) 11,000 employees ng ABS-CBN,” he said.

The Senate on Tuesday morning held a preliminary hearing in anticipation of HB 6732, in time for its planned approval before the June 3 adjournment.

ABS-CBN President and Chief Executive Officer Carlo L. Katigbak had said the network may consider beginning the retrenchment process in August due to the losses it incurs since its shutdown. — Genshen L. Espedido and Charmaine A. Tadalan

Typhoon leaves P170-M damage in power infra

RURAL power utilities suffered an estimated P170.22 million in infrastructure damage from typhoon Ambo, the National Electrification Administration (NEA) reported on Wednesday.

NEA, the agency tasked to power the countryside, said the typhoon that swept through the country last week affected 18 electric cooperatives operating in the provinces of Quezon, Marinduque, Sorsogon, Masbate, Western Samar, Eastern Samar, and Northern Samar.

The Northern Samar Electric Cooperative, Inc. (NORSAMELCO) suffered the most with estimated damage at P72.94 million.

According to NEA’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Department, 11 of the 18 rural utilities have already returned to normal operations as of Tuesday.

A task force composed of 67 linemen from participating cooperatives are carrying out restoration works in two badly hit utilities in Northern Samar and Eastern Samar. — Adam J. Ang