RITM chief stays, but senior DOH official coming in to ‘assist’ testing gridlock

Mara Cepeda
RITM chief stays, but senior DOH official coming in to ‘assist’ testing gridlock
DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III still vouches for the technical expertise of RITM director Celia Carlos, but says she needs help in expanding the country's COVID-19 testing capacity

MANILA, Philippines – Health Secretary Francisco Duque III clarified he did not sack Dr Celia Carlos as director of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), the country’s main novel coronavirus testing center now grappling with a backlog issue. 

Rather, the Department of Health (DOH) chief told Rappler he is designating Assistant Secretary Nestor Santiago to the RITM to help address the growing demand for testing.

“Dr Celia is still the director of RITM. Nobody is replacing her,” Duque told Rappler on Sunday, March 22.  

“Asec Santiago is designated only to oversee RITM and assist in easing some of its operational gridlocks,” added the DOH chief in a text message.

A copy of Duque’s Department Personnel Order (DPO) No. 2020-1011 made rounds on social media, which says Santiago has been appointed as “OIC-director IV” or officer-in-charge director IV of the RITM in a “concurrent capacity.” 

The RITM reorganization comes as the Philippines continues to struggle with a severe lack of test kits for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus that has so far infected 380 people and killed 25 in the country. (READ: Hell on earth: The agonizing confusion over coronavirus testing in PH)

In the first 3 months of the outbreak, the Philippines had only the RITM to test COVID-19 samples. Now there are 4 other subnational laboratories duly accredited by the World Health Organization, but they are not yet in full capacity. 

The DOH is yet to give a specific number on the testing backlog that all these laboratories need to catch up on. But a Rappler study showed the Philippines has been conducting only around 12 COVID-19 tests for every one million people.

On Monday, March 23, Duque said his executive assistant supposedly just made a clerical mistake in the DPO.

Nagkamali ‘yan. Inamin na ng aking executive assistant. Ang nailagay nila ang designation na director pero hindi, kasi Asec na siya eh. Ang sabi ko, magkaroon ng oversight lamang para makatulong kay Director Celia Carlos sa pagpapalawig ng testing capacity,” Duque told CNN Philippines. 

(There’s an error there. My executive assistant already admitted to it. What was placed in the designation is director but that’s not right, because he is an Asec already. I said he will just be performing an ovesight function to help Director Celia Carlos expand the testing capacity.) 

The DOH chief then vouched for Carlos’ technical expertise as RITM director.

“Kasi siyempre overwhelmed na rin ‘yong Direktor ko na ‘yan who si technically competent so I have no doubt about her technical expertise. Kailangan lang niya ang management ng expansion ng capacity…so pinapasok ko si Asec, si Assistant Secretary Nestor,” Duque said. 

(This director of mine is already overwhelmed, but she is technically competent so I have no doubt about her technical expertise. She just needs help in the management of the capacity expansion…so I put in Assistant Secretary Nestor.)

DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire previously said the country’s 5 subnational laboratories now have the capacity to process 950 to 1,000 tests per day, But the bulk still comes from the RITM, which averages 600 tests per day. – Rappler.com 

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.