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Contact tracing must be intensified

At the end of the day, and all the blah-blahs, is authoritarianism, a collective

CONTACT tracing — identifying all the people one person may have infected — has been proven in many countries, South Korea and Vietnam for example, to be a crucial tool for containing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Singapore and Hong Kong have espoused contact tracing, and so has Germany. All those countries have had relatively low death rates so far. The World Health Organization says it should be the “backbone of the response” in every country.

I’m afraid I haven’t seen any good report from the Department of Health (DoH) regarding whether this is being done, how it is being done or what their plans are for this effort.

If it is doing this kind of effort, there should be a daily report, publishing how many people the DoH staff has traced and interviewed who have been in touch with a Covid-19 patient, down the chain of encounters; how many have been told to quarantine themselves and given strict orders to take their temperatures and report it every morning and evening. This kind of work has been done in Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore.

In one case in the South I know about, only the victim’s relatives who lived with him were merely quarantined, and they weren’t interviewed to find out whom they or the original victim had a social encounter with.

We have had three high-profile personalities who were tested positive for Covid-19: Senators Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri, Aquilino Martin “Koko” Pimentel 3rd and Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara. As politicians, they would have met a lot of people, and even shaken hands with people they don’t know. Has there been sufficient contact tracing to find out whom they might have infected, down the chain of social encounters?

Contact tracing requires a lot of staff. In one case in Vietnam, 300 personnel were mobilized for the contact-tracing of just one patient. “Businesses visited by the patient were isolated and people who had been in contact with him were tracked down via surveillance camera footage and then taken into quarantine facilities. The whole process took less than two days and had a definite effect on minimizing the spread of the virus from the patient,“ according to one report on the case.

Note the time frame: just two days. The longer those who might have been infected by the original carrier aren’t traced and aren’t quarantined and monitored, the more people who would be infected by the virus. Such an intense campaign requires a lot of people.

I don’t think the DoH has the personnel for this nor do its attached agencies. The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) on top of the fight against the pandemic must set up a kind of sub-task force for contact tracing so they can draw personnel from other government agencies.

In Massachusetts in the United States, a nongovernment organization, Partners in Health, has been deploying nearly 1,000 people to do the contact tracing. “Contact tracing will be the only way to contain further spread of Covid-19 once the initial surge is past, and get into the suppression phase, Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was quoted in a newspaper article. “We need an army of 300,000 people,” he said.

The number of Covid-19 cases here appears to be stabilizing at around 200 per day. If only a team of five undertakes contact tracing for each of those, we would need 1,000 personnel to do the contact tracing. Assume that there is a backlog of a minimum of 1,000 cases that need to be contact-traced, we need a contract-tracing force of at least 2,000, ideally 3,000.

We have enough civic-minded people, especially the idled student sector, to undertake such intense contact tracing.

The IATF-EID would need to establish the procedures for contact tracing.

In England now, the tracer would call the contacts and ask them how close they had been to the person with symptoms and establish whether they were low-risk or high-risk. If the latter, they would be asked to isolate themselves for 14 days at home. The contact tracers would either call each day to check how they were or ask them to phone if they felt ill. If they developed symptoms, the tracers would start again, looking for their contacts in turn.

We have a significant number of “techie” people, many of whom most probably are idle now. The IATF-EID and the science and technology department — with the participation (and funding) of Smart and Globe must follow the example of Apple and Google which have been developing cellphone apps that would facilitate contact tracing.

In the app that the two tech giants have developed, Bluetooth devices track physical proximity between phones. If someone later receives a positive Covid-19 diagnosis, they can report it through the app, and any user who has been in recent contact will receive a notification.

Our techies and the cellphone giants I would think can develop a more effective app useful in the fight against the pandemic. We have to sacrifice some privacy: those traced to have been in touch with a confirmed Covid-19 patient must have an app installed that will monitor their movements and facilitate the submission of their temperatures morning and evening.

Perhaps our weird situation — for our level of economic development — that 80 percent of Filipinos use cellphones would prove to be a major weapon in the fight against this terrible pandemic.

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