MANILA - Several senators on Tuesday backed Senate President Vicente Sotto III's call for the Department of Health to drop its planned hiring of 130,000 COVID-19 contact tracers, saying the agency can tap local government workers for the job to avoid hurting the national coffers.
Instead of spending P11.7 billion, the DOH can tap "around 400,000 barangay health workers and parent-leaders from the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program to carry out contact tracing," Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said.
"In light of the budget deficit, it behooves all agencies to exercise prudent judgment in the use of public funds," Drilon said in a statement, adding that while contact tracing "is a must," it can be done without a smaller amount of funds.
"Given the increasing budget deficit, which is projected to reach P1.56 trillion or 8.1 percent of the country's gross domestic product this year, this P11.7 billion should better be put to good use," he said.
Instead of hiring 130,000 contact tracers, the DOH can make use of "simple technologies" like Android and iOS apps to trace possible carriers of COVID-19, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said in a separate statement, noting that the local government of Carmona in Cavite has developed its own COVID-19 tracker.
"In just a few days of implementation, the local government has already signed up 42,000 out of the municipality's 97,557 residents. For those without smartphones, the local government's barangay and police personnel can input the information for them," Lacson said.
The senator also cited Baguio City's contact tracing effort that "relies on the geographical information system (GIS) platform to plot the areas where possible COVID-19 carriers live."
"With these technologies, we can potentially save P11.7 billion being asked by the Department of Health for contact tracers," Lacson said.
"Our national agencies, including the Department of Health, need not look far for contact tracing solutions that are effective, yet are not intrusive. Instead, they must take a cue from our LGUs," he said.
Sen. Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan also questioned how the government spent P353 billion in coronavirus-related programs, but left the Philippines still lagging behind the number of COVID-19 testing centers.
The Philippines only has 49 COVID-19 laboratories with 81 pending for accreditation, while Vietnam has 112 and South Korea has 500 testing centers.
"This gives us a sense of where we are and where they are in terms of managing the spread [of the disease]," Pangilinan said.
"The issue of backlog, late data on results, obviously will lead to poor contact tracing and leading to the inability or failure to isolate high-risk people," he said.
The bulk of the P353 billion went to the Department of Social Welfare and Development's (DSWD) cash aid program for 18 million indigent families, while only P428 million went to the University of the Philippines - Philippine General Hospital, one of the large government facilities catering to COVID-19 patients, according to data from the Senate Committee on Finance.
The World Health Organization (WHO) earlier said that the Philippines needs 94,000 more contact tracers to meet that standard ratio of 1 contact tracer for every 800 individuals in a country.