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Makabayan Bloc files free COVID-19 mass testing bill

Members of the House Makabayan Bloc have formalized their call for mass testing by filing a measure mandating free mass testing for all suspected cases of COVID-19 as well as for health workers and other vulnerable sectors.

The six-member bloc filed on Wednesday House Bill 6848, or the proposed "Free Mass Testing Act of 2020," amid incessant appeals from the public for the government to conduct mass testing for COVID-19.

"This bill seeks to establish Free Mass Testing Program in order to know the extent of the transmission and infection of the disease in the country and equip the government and the Filipinos with essential data in the fight against COVID-19," the explanatory note of the bill read.

Covered in the proposed Free Mass Testing Program are suspect cases for COVID-19, as well as the close contacts of probable and confirmed cases of the diseases, high risk communities, health workers, and other vulnerable sectors and groups.

These vulnerable sectors and groups include symptomatic patients aged 60 years old and above, patients with comorbid illness regardless of age, pregnant women, returning overseas Filipino workers, other frontline workers, and other groups as determined by the Department of Health.

The bill mandates that suspected cases as well as close contacts of confirmed or probable cases and health workers be tested using reverse transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (rtPCR) testing or GeneXpert, if rtPCR is not available.

Private and government employees returning to work, students, teachers and non-teaching personnel should also be tested if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, returning OFWs, foreign workers, tourists and other foreign officials must be tested and undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon their arrival to the country.

No amount should be charged from individuals who are eligible to avail of the COVID-19 testing.

The bill also mandates the Department of Health and the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease to create a COVID-19 Mass Testing Plan within 15 days from effectivity, which determines the measures to be done if a patient tests positive for the disease.

The IATF is likewise tasked to provide all members of the Senate and the House with a weekly report on the number of tested individuals per category and per region, and the budget utilization.

The funding for free mass testing for COVID-19 will be primarily sourced from the overall savings from the 2016 to 2019 General Appropriations.

Health Undersecretary Ma. Rosario Vergeire on Tuesday earlier said that instead of "mass" testing, the Philippines is implementing an "expanded" COVID-19 testing, which initially covered vulnerable and severe cases of the disease but has since been extended to those with mild symptoms.

Asymptomatic cases are also currently being tested, Vergeire added, but only those who had exposure to COVID-19 patients.

Vergeire said that with limited resources, the government’s efforts should be focused.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III has said that the target of the DOH is to have 30,000 tests daily by the end of May or in early June.

This, he said, represents about 50% of suspected and probable cases of COVID-19.

As of May 28, a total of 15,588 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the Philippines, with 921 deaths and 3,598 recoveries. — BM, GMA News