hospitals in the Philippines

RITM scales down operations again after staff tests positive for COVID-19

Bonz Magsambol

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(UPDATED) The Research Institute for Tropical Medicine – the country's main COVID-19 testing center – has a backlog of over 6,000 coronavirus tests as of July 11

The Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) has more than half of the country’s coronavirus backlog of tests since it had to scale down its operations again after one of its staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and the breakdown of its machines, the Department of Health said on Wednesday, July 15.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire made the statement during a virtual press briefing on Wednesday, July 15, when asked asked why RITM accounts for almost half of the country’s coronavirus backlog of 13,457 tests.

“Actually ang RITM nag-scale down ulit noong isang araw. Unang-una nagkaroon ulit ng nag-quarantine na mga tao ang RITM dahil nagkaroon na naman ng positive case sa kanila,” Vergeire said. 

(RITM scaled down [operations] the other day. First of all, one of the people at RITM tested positive so they had to quarantine some staff there.)

Vergeire added that RITM had to do contact tracing and isolated some of its laboratory employees who had contact with the case. 

Aside from this, Vergeire also cited the increase of specimen submissions and broken machines for the backlog of tests at RITM. 

“Pangalawa, mayroon talagang increased submission of specimen sa ngayon dahil alam natin may surge ng cases at nag-expand tayo ng testing protocol. Pangatlo, nasira ‘yung isang machine o dalawang machine nila. Hindi na nila magamit, kailangan pang ayusin,” she said. 

(Second, there’s really increased submissions of specimen now because of the surge of cases and we expanded our testing protocol. Third, one or two machines are broken. They can’t use them; they have to be fixed.)

As of Sunday, July 11, the RITM has a backlog of 6,245 tests based on DOH’s weekly situation reports.

The government was able to reduce the backlog in late June to only 3,608 tests, but the number rose again in early July.

According to Vergeire, they have already other facilities near RITM to reduce the backlog. She said that the DOH is also coordinating with the Philippine Red Cross if they can process the remaining backlogs. 

The RITM earlier scaled down its operations on April 21, after 43 of its employees tested positive for the virus. On April 28, the DOH said that RITM was gradually getting back to its original testing capacity. 

Personnel welfare

RITM Director Celia Carlos said in a statement on Wednesday that RITM “will still be accepting specimens from admitted patients within our testing zone for the 5 days of the laboratory operations scale down.”

She referred to the catchment areas assigned to RITM which include Las Piñas, Makati, Muntinlupa, Parañaque, Pasay, Pateros, and Taguig in Metro Manila; Batangas, Laguna, and Quezon in Calabarzon; and Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, and Romblon in Mimaropa.
The RITM said it also requested Centers for Health Development in Calabarzon, Mimaropa, and Metro Manila “to arrange outpatient testing referrals to activated COVID-19 laboratories, both public and private real-time PCR and GeneXpert facilities, within their respective regions for the mean time.”
RITM said it “agonized to maintain its testing capacity of 2,000 specimens per day despite enduring a number of infected personnel since June.”

“We wanted to consistently deliver our best despite the mounting challenges, but it was at the expense of our weakening manpower. If our machines can give for long periods of 24/7 high throughput testing, our people can be worn down as well. This scale down also provides us the opportunity to take care of our own,” Carlos said.

RITM said of the 31 staff members wbo tested positive for COVID-19, 10 Ten are symptomatic but stable, while the others aresaid to be on the way to recovery state and are only awaiting the results of their repeat test.

For 10 straight days before July 13, when the country recorded over 800 new coronavirus cases, the DOH had been tallying over 1,000 confirmed coronavirus infections daily. 

As of July 13, the country has 85 licensed testing hubs, while its testing capacity hovered around 16,000 to 21,000 last week. This is still below the 30,000 testing capacity that the government targeted to have in May.

The country has so far tested over 1 million individuals out of the government’s total target of two million or 2% of the country’s 110 million population.

On Tuesday, July 14, the Philippines recorded 634 new cases of the disease, bringing the total cases in the country to 57,545, including 1,603 deaths and 20,459 recoveries.

The DOH said the continued increase in cases is a reflection of an expanded testing capacity, but it also cited the easing of quarantine measures as another factor.

University of the Philippines researchers projected the country could reach 60,000 cases by the end of July. –

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.