By: Ben O. de Vera, Jovic Yee, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 21 May 2020
MANILA, Philippines — The government’s economic team has proposed to hire 136,000 contact tracers to boost the efforts of the Department of Health (DOH) to halt the spread of the new coronavirus in the Philippines.
Contact tracers are health workers who track down the close contacts of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus that causes the severe respiratory disease COVID-19.
Currently, the DOH has 38,315 contact tracers and it is hiring more health workers to raise the number to 126,000.
P30 billion needed
But acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua told an online meeting of the Senate committee of the whole on Tuesday that 136,000 contact tracers might be needed to suppress the coronavirus contagion.
“That would, of course, depend on the amount that we are willing to pay,” said Chua, who also heads the state planning agency National Economic and Development Authority (Neda).
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III told the senators that the proposal would cost P30 billion. He said he would push for funding to deploy more contact tracers.
Chua mentioned a wage subsidy that could be converted into cash for work to cover contact tracers.
“[U]pon confirmation of the DOH, we could present the details of that. But we are ready to support up to 1 million, actually, cash-for-work beneficiaries,” he said.
Hiring contact tracers is one of the actions that Dominguez recommended to President Duterte to take in a phased easing of lockdown measures to revive the devastated economy.
Second wave already here
Mr. Duterte has allowed a loosening of restrictions on movement and businesses. On Wednesday, however, he said he would place the country back on lockdown if the unwinding of quarantine measures led to a second wave of coronavirus infections.
Actually, the country is already experiencing a second wave of infections. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told an online meeting of the Senate committee of the whole on Wednesday that in strict epidemiological terms, the first wave occurred in late January when three Chinese visitors from Wuhan, China, tested positive for the new coronavirus.
According to Dr. John Wong, an epidemiologist and member of the subtechnical group on data analytics of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, the Chinese cases were the first wave.
“A wave consists of a rise and fall in cases. In January, we had imported cases from Chinese tourists. It was a slight rise followed by a fall, then it was very quiet in February,” Wong said.
He said the second wave, considered the “first major wave,” occurred in March when the first local transmission of the coronavirus was recorded. It peaked on March 31 when the DOH recorded a high of 538 cases.
“Cases have since gone down to about 220 a day. So we’re now in the trough or the lower part of the second wave. What we want to avoid once we shift to [general community quarantine] is another peak or several more peaks,” Wong said.
Earlier this month, Wong warned of a possible third wave if the public did not follow mitigation measures after the government eased lockdown restrictions, especially in densely populated Metro Manila.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said preventing a resurgence of the virus was what mattered to the DOH.
“What’s most important for us is to prevent whatever wave would come our way. If it’s the second major wave or [another] increase in cases, we should always remember to observe the DOH’s reminders to practice hand-washing, physical distancing, cough etiquette, the wearing of masks, regular disinfection, and staying at home,” Vergeire said.
On Wednesday, the DOH recorded 279 new coronavirus cases, bringing the national total to 13,221. The majority of the cases, or 150, were reported in Metro Manila.
The DOH said 89 more patients had recovered, raising the total number of COVID-19 survivors to 2,932. The death toll, however, increased to 842 with the deaths of five more patients.
Front-line medical workers still account for one of five infections, as the total number of health-care workers afflicted with COVID-19 has climbed to 2,315. Of these workers, 1,018 have recovered while 33 have died.
The DOH took out of the list two health workers it earlier listed as having died after its Epidemiology Bureau verified that they had “retired and were no longer on active duty.”
The department has hired 2,505 health-care workers under its emergency hiring program to augment its workforce. They are deployed in 168 hospitals and quarantines across the country.