The trips bringing locally-stranded individuals (LSIs) back to their provinces have been temporarily suspended as the government prepares to require them to undergo swab testing.
Testing czar Vince Dizon announced this on Thursday, June 25, during a Malacañang press briefing.
"Right now, the trips for our LSIs will have to be suspended because there will be a new protocol given that our test kits have arrived. LSIs will be subjected to mandatory PCR [testing] before they travel to their provinces," he said in Filipino.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said the suspension became effective on Thursday.
"This is to make sure they are [COVID-19] free and, at the same time, we have to protect the communities and LGUs (local government units) they are going to," he added.
Previously, reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests were only required for stranded individuals recovering from COVID-19. (READ: Stranded because of lockdown? Here's what you need to know)
The rest just needed to secure a medical clearance stating they weren't confirmed, suspected, or probably coronavirus cases and had completed a 14-day quarantine.
Dizon did not give specifics on how long the suspension would last. He has not responded to Rappler's request for clarification.
Why now? The reason why the government can now require RT-PCR testing, the "gold standard" for coronavirus testing, is because one million testing supplies arrived in the country last June 21. (READ: PH aims to test asymptomatics, all frontliners – Dizon)
The first of a bulk order of 10 million test kits, these supplies have improved the government's capacity to test.
Since lockdown restrictions were eased nationwide, more and more people in Metro Manila are trying to return to their provinces.
LSIs include stranded workers (like domestic workers and construction workers), tourists, and students.
But this exodus has worried local governments since LSIs can unknowingly bring the virus to their hometowns. Using rapid tests, as doctors had warned before, could yield false negative or false positive results.
At the moment, "100%" of overseas Filipino workers returning to their hometowns from abroad have been required to undergo PCR testing, Roque has previously said.
A number of provinces and cities reported either their first cases or a spike in the number of cases attributed to returnees.
During the Laging Handa briefing earlier on Thursday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said that the government was suspending the repatriation of returning residents to Eastern Visayas while the isolation facilities – many of them already hitting full capacity – are declogged and disinfected.
"The rise in cases started with the return of overseas Filipino workers and locally stranded individuals," Año said in Filipino, adding that the suspension will be for two weeks. – With a report from Ryan Macasero/Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.