There was a bit of good news this weekend in the National Capital Region, where a new COVID alert system combined with granular lockdowns is being pilot-tested. After over a week of the experimental shift in pandemic response strategy, cases and infection rates have decreased sufficiently to classify the COVID risk in the NCR as moderate, from high risk at the start of the pilot.
To temper the good news, however, the Department of Health, which announced the deceleration in infection, said it is looking into the reasons for the drop in cases even as the highly infectious Delta variant continues to spread in other parts of the country, forcing a return to tighter restrictions.
Hospitals are overwhelmed even in the NCR, where President Duterte has found the need to deploy military and police medical personnel to augment healthcare workers at COVID wards.
In particular, the Department of Health is looking at the possibility that fewer RT-PCR tests are being conducted in the NCR. The DOH did not expound on this, but it is an intriguing possibility, considering that nearly 200 areas in the NCR have been placed under granular lockdown since the start of the pilot test.
Under a granular lockdown, residents are not allowed to go outdoors except for a handful of authorized persons outside residence such as health workers and security personnel. The theory is that those covered by the lockdown will be made to undergo RT-PCR tests, to make isolation, treatment and containment of the virus easier. Local government units must shoulder the cost of testing their constituents. But are LGUs doing it?
The national government does not offer free RT-PCR tests. Although the price is a fraction of the cheapest RT-PCR tests offered by non-government providers – the Philippine Red Cross and private company Manila HealthTek – the testing capacity of the national government is not enough. The cost of RT-PCR tests has always been a setback to the pandemic response.
There are also reports of residents in areas under granular lockdown who have refused to undergo testing. The residents reportedly argue that if they test positive, they could be unable to earn a living for at least 14 days. Others who live in cramped dwellings worry about being separated from their children or elderly relatives who have no one else to care for them.
There is always the possibility that infection has genuinely slowed down in the NCR, and the shift in pandemic response strategy is working. The DOH, however, is right in urging caution in easing restrictions, and in looking deeper into the cause of the slowdown in infections.