(Philstar.com) – March 30, 2021 – 7:20pm

MANILA, Philippines — Antigen test results for COVID-19 in the ‘NCR Plus’ area will now be included in the Philippines’ overall count of infections, the Department of Health said Tuesday.

‘NCR Plus’ covers Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite.

In a House inquiry on government’s pandemic response, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire explained that antigen tests still need to be confirmed through RT-PCR screenings. But she said the move is allowed under the agency’s guidelines on areas where there is a high prevalance of cases.

“The rapid antigen test will be officially reported for this period that we have this increase in the number of cases,” she said, echoing health chief Francisco Duque III and testing czar Vince Dizon’s remarks that it would be done as part of an “outbreak response.”

This came after Rep. Stella Quimbo (Marikina) said there appears to be a growing number of individuals testing positive on antigen tests conducted by local governments. These, however, are not counted as only results from RT-PCR tests are included in the tally.

Vergeire, however, said persons who turn out positive on antigen tests are not reported by the DOH. Instead, the official said, they are classified as suspect or probable cases. 

“They are not confirmed COVID-19 cases,” she added. “They are not reported in the case bulletin, but we have the numbers for that and we also manage them.”

A gap to address

In one exchange between Quimbo and Duque, the health secretary admitted that not including antigen test results in the country’s overall count is a gap that they recognize and that needs policy review.

Testing czar Dizon sought to explain that in ‘NCR Plus’ alone, daily testing is between 25,000 to 30,000 samples but that this is still not enough due to “inherent limitations” of the RT-PCR tests. 

He said the screenings are prone to delays when laboratory personnel handling samples get infected too, and the results take time to be released. 

“In order to manage a surge this huge, the turnaround time of tests is very important,” Dizon said partly in Filipino. “Given those two issues in light of the surge, our experts opted to go for antigen tests as these do not need to go through laboratories.”

As March comes to an end, the Philippines continues to report significant increase in new coronavirus cases, with over 9,000 added in recent days.

The numbers have propelled the country’s total to 741,181 by March 30, with active cases still at an alarming figure of 124,680. — Christian Deiparine