Only 4 out of 600 localities in PH have contact tracing capability – Magalong

Pia Ranada

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Only around 8 out of 37 close contacts of every positive COVID-19 case is being traced, says tracing czar Benjamin Magalong

The country’s own “tracing czar,” Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, said only 0.68% – or 4 – of 614 local government units who answered a survey he sent out had a good COVID-19 contact tracing system in place.

Nakakalungkot lang po na banggitin ko rito na talagang napakababa po ang ating contact tracing efficiency. Only 0.68% of the 600 plus na nagresponde po ay talagang mayroon silang established na contact tracing capability,” he said on Thursday, July 30, during a virtual press briefing.

(It’s sad for me to mention here that our contact tracing efficiency is really low. Only 0.68% of the 600 plus who responded have an established contact tracing capability.)

Magalong said he asked 1,800 local governments to answer a “diagnostic questionnaire” to give him a better understanding of their contact tracing capability. Of these, only 614 responded.

For each positive case, only around 8 contacts are being traced on average, Magalong said in a radio interview that day.

This is way below the 30 to 37 close contacts he sets as a standard.

A ratio of 37 contacts per positive case is being used by the national government as basis for tracing efforts, National Action Plan Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez Jr said in the same press conference.

“What we and Mayor Magalong did is to use the formula of 1 is to 37. Meaning, each positive case has 37 close contacts. That’s the formula we use for our preparations, our testing and isolation,” he said in Filipino.

Major red flag

The low levels of contact tracing in local governments is a big red flag since contact tracing is critical to identifying who in a community was exposed to COVID-19 cases and would need to be isolated and treated, if they develop symptoms.

Boosted contact tracing capacity of local governments is especially important now that the national coronavirus task force is shifting the burden of pandemic response to them and to private companies.

Magalong said the big gaps revealed by the results of his survey need to be filled.

“That’s what we’re focused on now. It will be form part of our strategy to train all of them,” said Magalong.

Local governments will be taught “cognitive interviewing skills,” or a method of interviewing confirmed COVID-19 cases and the people they came into contact with, that produces the most useful and detailed information for identifying who else they were exposed to.

Magalong had been tapped by Duterte as testing czar because of his effective use of police investigation interviewing methods to do contact tracing in Baguio City. He has promised to “radically” change the country’s contact tracing campaign.

The testing chief also said he would teach local governments to harness digital tools and data analytics for more efficient and comprehensive contact tracing.

To complement this effort, Magalong will ask the help of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

“We are reaching out to the DICT so we can make use of the digital contact tracing I mentioned. It will complement our traditional way of conducting contact tracing,” said Magalong.

Wanted: Contact tracers

But the biggest hurdle faced by the country’s nationwide contact tracing effort is a lack of people to do it.

The national government said it aims to hire 50,000 more contact tracers to augment its current pool of over 52,000 people tapped by both national and local governments and the private sector.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año previously acknowledged that if the World Health Organization’s 1:800 ratio is to be followed, the Philippines would need to hire 82,000 – not just 50,000 – more contact tracers.

But he said the balance would be supplied by the volunteers tapped by local governments and the private sector.

Intensified tracing, possibly to the 3rd degree of contacts, is among the components of a “reinvigorated” plan to address the steady rise in COVID-19 infections promised by Duterte coronavirus task force.

On Friday, July 31, the Philippines recorded its biggest single-day spike in coronavirus cases – 4,063 cases – which raised the total confirmed cases in the country to 93,354. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.