The House of Representative’s Health Panel has raised its concerns over the Philippine Government’s handling and response to the COVID-19 health crisis in a hearing on Tuesday (March 30).

In a 9-hour virtual conference, the Health Panel grilled government officials on their response to the current surge of COVID-19 cases, specifically in the ‘NCR Plus’ region, which consists of Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal. 

The House Panel’s frustrations were evident during the hearing with many echoing the same sentiment that the current situation is being mishandled and a lot more could be done to address problems more effectively. 

“You’re trying hard? Try harder. It’s no excuse that we are failing, and we are performing worse than the rest of the region,” said Ang Asosasyon Sang Mangunguma Bisaya-Owa Mangunguman (AAMBIS-OWA) Representative Sharon Garin.

“We owe it to our people,” Garin declared.

Meanwhile, Quezon 4th District Representative and health panel chair Angelina Tan emphasized that the government still has ‘much room for improvement’ when it comes to addressing issues brought about by the health crisis. 

“Marami pang kulang at pwede pa pong gawin. There’s so much room for improvement in different aspects,” she remarked. 

In the first hour of the hearing, the panel questioned the Department of Health’s (DOH) on their data collection for daily COVID-19 tallies. 

According to the department’s Dr. Alethea De Guzman, Director of the DOH Epidemiology Bureau, they make use of their COVID-19 Document Repository System, which requires laboratories to submit virus test results every day.

When asked about the issue of underreported cases, specifically in Visayas and Mindanao, De Guzman says cases in those areas are not spreading as fast as it does in Luzon. However, she warned that infection rates are also picking up. 

The DOH also announced that it will start adopting a new scheme when it comes to counting COVID-19 cases. From now on, they’ll be recognizing positive antigen tests in their official tally. 

Another pressing issue that was discussed is the country’s contact-tracing effort.

Baguio Mayor and contact-tracing czar Benjamin Magalong said the rate of contact tracing has declined significantly, specifically for the latter half of March. He notes that case tracing is basically absent at this point for many regions as it doesn’t go beyond household exposure. 

Another problem representatives called attention to is the lack of proper accommodation for COVID-19 patients, which is becoming more evident as cases rise in Greater Manila. 

According to Philippine Heart Center’s Executive Director Dr. Joel Abanilla, their intensive care units (ICU) have been at full capacity for seven days now. He notes that some patients had to wait in the emergency room before they can be treated. 

Other hospitals such as the UP-PGH, Philippine Lung Center, and the National Kidney and Transplant Institute resounded Abanilla’s sentiments.

The DOH and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also warned about the use and sale of the drug Ivermectin to treat COVID-19, which has not been recommended by them or the World Health Organization (WHO).

When it comes to vaccination, the government is sticking to its pre-existing plans, particularly for its prioritized vaccination program targeting frontline medical workers. According to DOH Usec Myrna Cabotaje, they’re also relying on local government units (LGUs) and the private sector to improve the rate of immunization. 

At the end of the hearing, Pangasinan 4th District Representative Christopher de Venecia urged the DOH to make use of ‘advertising’ and ‘communication design’ to counter misinformation regarding COVID-19 vaccines and encourage more Filipinos to take the jabs.

“I would just like to enjoin the DOH to look into these two sectors [advertising and communication design] for collaboration as you design this communication strategy for inoculation and the vaccine,” he stressed. 

You can watch the hearing below.

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