Juxtaposed: COVID-19 test privilege of gov’t officials, health workers, vulnerable sector

March 22, 2021 - 7:17 PM
A nurse gets a swab from a health worker in a booth set up in a hospital parking lot as the Philippines ramps up testing for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manila, Philippines, April 15, 2020. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)

How many high-ranking government officials undergo repeated Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test?

Some social media users raised this question after Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said that he has already undergone 56 swab tests.

Duque disclosed this during an event at Barangay Baclaran, Parañaque City on Friday, March 19.

“Ako po bilang kalihim and madalas pong makipagpulong kay Pangulo, e kinakailangang magpa-swab. Ngayon po naka 56 swab test na po ako,” he said.

The controversial health secretary also claimed that he continued to test negative for COVID-19 because he observes the mandated minimum health protocols.

Duque also promoted the Department of Health’s “Bida Bastonero” initiative where he and other health officials visit public areas to enforce the recommended one-meter physical distance.

Based on reports, he also distributed free masks and shields to residents and vendors.

Last December, they visited a mall in Bonifacio Global City in Taguig to enforce the physical distancing measures using a meter stick.

Duque once again earned criticisms over the activity. They told him to focus on pressing health concerns related to the pandemic such as vaccine procurement.

COVID-19 test privilege

Some social media users, meanwhile, questioned the official’s admission of taking several COVID-19 tests despite the lack of supply for other front-liners and vulnerable Filipinos.

“Nakakahiya naman po sa SOH. We do our best to be prudent and frugal whenever we avail of swab testing because our patients and other colleagues need it more than us. (angry emojis),” one user wrote.

“Ang suwerte mo naman na lagi kang nate-test. E yung naka-duty nga sa mismong COVID ward e ilang beses lang naii-swab. Mahiya naman sana kayo nina Roque. Kayo kaya magduty sa COVID ward. Try niyo, tutal e lagi kayo naii-swab test,” another user wrote.

Some recalled presidential spokesperson Harry Roque who also bared taking at least 35 swab tests following his announcement that he contracted COVID-19 on March 15.

Taking RT-PCR tests became part of his “routine” before meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte weekly during the pandemic, according to the spokesperson.

READ: How much do 35 COVID-19 swab tests cost? Filipinos compute as Palace spox bares test ‘routine’

When is RT-PCR test required?

COVID-19 swab tests used to be required when traveling to another province.

Duterte usually holds his meeting in Davao City, therefore requiring government officials who attend that meeting with him to undergo RT-PCR tests.

Some government officials including police officers are also holding meetings outside Metro Manila to coordinate with provincial government units’ pandemic response and reopening of tourist destinations.

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases last month eased the travel requirements and no longer require an RT-PCR tests but most local government units still require it for the safety of their community.

Critics then slammed the COVID-19 testing privilege and lamented how Roque, Duque and other high-ranking officials can afford to take multiple RT-PCR tests while other Filipinos who needed them could not.

“While Filipinos are calling for mass testing, people like Duque have the privilege to get tested 56x. It’s like once a week over the past year since the pandemic (smile emoji),” one user said.

“Now, imagine how many swab tests did Duterte [have]? Then, think of how many more resources are being used [on] these… government officials versus the [number] of swab tests allowed for every front-liner [who] actually do their jobs. You do the math,” another user said.

The cost of undergoing a single RT-PCR test

Only a few local government units in the country managed to provide free COVID-19 testing for their constituents.

Most private and public health facilities, meanwhile, charge each patient not less than P1,000 per test.

Some private hospitals pegged their RT-PCR tests up to P8,000, especially for walk-ins. Public hospitals offer them between P1,750 to P2,000.

Last November, Duterte signed (EO) No. 118, which mandated the DOH, in coordination with the Department of Trade and Industry, to determine, formulate and implement a price range for COVID-19 testing conducted by hospitals, laboratories, and other health establishments and facilities including the test kits used in the conduct of said tests, subject to existing rules, and regulation.

Duque on November 30 issued the DOH memorandum 2020-0391 which stated that the regulated prices for RT-PCR tests are:

  1. Private hospitals: P4,500 (reference) and P5,000 (cap)
  2. Public hospitals: P3,800 (reference) and P3,800 (cap)
“This price range is already inclusive of all costs associated with testing, including a faster turnaround time and other premium services,” the health secretary said.