The Department of the Interior and Local Government today thanked the Senate and the House of Representatives for appropriating P5 Billion for contact tracing under Bayanihan II saying that this will finally allow the department to significantly ramp up contract tracing efforts across the country to cut the transmission of COVID-19.
DILG Secretary Eduardo M. Año said that the additional funds will allow the government to undertake aggressive contact tracing and active case surveillance and case finding which is a pillar of the National Action Plan against the global pandemic.
“We wish to thank Senate President Tito Sotto, Senators Ralph Recto, Grace Poe, Sonny Angara and all the other senators who championed this cause as well as the members of the House of Representatives led by Speaker Allan Cayetano for this significant shot in the arm for our country’s contact tracing program,” said Año who is also Vice-Chair of the National Task Force COVID-19.
“This is really good news because we can now hire a maximum of 50,000 more contact tracers to meet the WHO recommended ratio of one contact tracer for every 800 people. They will supplement the 85,000 contact tracers we now have and allow us to double the number of contact tracers in LGUs with rising cases, especially in Metro Manila,” he said.
He said that this development will now allow the government to meet the recommendations of Contact Tracing Czar Mayor Benjie Magalong of a 1:37 patient to close contact ratio in order to cut the transmission of the disease. “We will now be able to significantly increase the number of contact tracers to meet the 1:37 ratio target recommended by Mayor Magalong which has been effective in Baguio and in Cebu City,” he said.
Dr. Takeshi Kasai, director of the WHO office for Western Pacific, and Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, country representative, has recommended to the DILG the ramping up of the country’s contact tracing efforts as part of the WHO’s continuing documentation of the country’s best practices in response to the pandemic.
The WHO has recognized as a best practice the new Contact Tracing system developed by Magalong which combined digital technology and cognitive interviews by contact tracers. Through the DILG, Magalong has been sharing the new system with other Local Government Units as part of his responsibilities as the NTF’s contact tracing czar.
The DILG Chief that they will be ready to recruit the additional contact tracers as soon as the funds are released to them by the DBM. He said that aggressive contact, active community involvement, and strict quarantine enforcement are the priorities now of his department.
DILG Undersecretary and Spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said that aggressive contact tracing was the key to the success of the COVID-19 response in Metropolitan Cebu and Baguio City.
He said that the additional contact tracers will be trained by the DILG’s Local Government Academy in utilizing the “cognitive interviewing technique” which is similar to the questioning technique employed by the police to retrieve information about a crime from eyewitnesses and victims. “Our LGA and PPSC has developed 4 modules in our training program and we will ensure that all those hired will be trained,” he said.
Malaya said that the success in Cebu City can be attributed to the creation of cluster clinics, barangay isolation centers, and quarantine facilities; deployment of additional contact tracing teams; and expanded testing.
“But the biggest game-changer in Cebu City is the aggressive contract tracing. Before they only had 5 teams, now they have 130 teams implementing the Magalong formula of tracing 37 contacts per COVID patient. By doing so, they were able to immediately isolate those infected and cut the transmission before it infects the community. Now they see a downtrend and their cases are now manageable,” he said.
He said that Cebu also implemented the data management system recommended by Magalong and hired encoders and analysts to study the trends.
The University of the Philippines OCTA Research Group said the replication rate in Cebu City has dropped from a high of 2 to 1.14 in the month the IATF/NTF stepped in to oversee the COVID response. From daily cases by the hundreds, the new cases have gone down to double digits, a trend that has continued even under GCQ. The positivity rate has also significantly dropped from 33% to 16%.
Malaya also agreed that that technology must be used in contact tracing just like in other countries but manual contact tracing must be done hand in hand with the use of digital technology because we cannot completely rely on digital applications.
“All countries use both – manual and digital technology. There are also limitations in just using technology because not everybody has a smartphone which is what is required in digital contact tracing. And even those with smartphones, compatibility of Android with IOS is another problem. The phone owner should also always update the status of his health which needs cooperation from users,” he said.
He explained that manual contact tracing is done, on the other hand, through phone or any other means of communication or through face to face (with PPE) for those who cannot be contacted. “A contact tracer also shows empathy as he elicits information from the confirmed case and close contacts. Cognitive interview is also done. Therefore, the contact tracer is also a patient case manager,” he said.
Malaya said that the Contact Tracer also advises the patient and close contact on what to do. “He can refer him to an isolation facility. He monitors the case and close contacts every day for 14 days for symptoms and health status. Hence, direct communication with the COVID patient is important,” he added.
He said that with the expanded contact tracing, LGUs can open up their own contact tracing command center which will serve as the nerve center for data gathering. “With just one click of our contact tracers in their phones, data will be automatically sent to the database and analysis can be done. Here is where technology comes in.”