The public health emergency caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has highlighted gaps in the health care system that need to be addressed. In this light, Senator and Chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Demography Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go has recently filed a bill seeking to strengthen the country’s efforts in disease surveillance and epidemiologic investigation.

Senate Bill 1528 filed by Go last week seeks to amend Republic Act 11332, also known as the “Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act.”

Go said that the bill aims to enhance the country’s health care system in terms of disease surveillance and control, such as having better capabilities in conducting more testing and intensive contact tracing in times of pandemics.

“Over the course of this pandemic, marami tayong mga natutunan at nakita natin ang mga aspeto ng sistema na dapat mabigyan ng pansin. Nakita natin ang mga kailangan ayusin sa ating disease surveillance and control capabilities para gawing mas handa ang bansa sa anumang health crisis na darating,” Go said.

The Senator emphasized that this bill, if passed into law, will further capacitate national and local health units to conduct better contact tracing, testing, diagnosis, treatment, and surveillance of various diseases.

“In the long run, mai-improve natin ang ating medical preparedness and response to future health crises,” Go said, adding that by amending and enhancing the existing law, the measure can improve contact tracing efforts and disease surveillance during a health crisis.

To improve the surveillance of infectious diseases, health facilities, workplaces, schools, commercial establishments, as well as communities are mandated “to provide necessary information to authorized personnel of the DOH and other authorized agencies… in disease surveillance including contact tracing.”

Based on the proposed law, the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines will be required to help in contact tracing and other necessary investigations.

“Malaking tulong ang ating mga uniformed personnel mula sa PNP at AFP hindi lang sa pag-maintain ng peace and order, pati rin sa pag-alaga at pagsuporta sa ating health experts at medical personnel sa pag-manage ng krisis na ito,” Go explained.

“Nakita po natin na naging maganda ang kinalabasan ng pakikipagtulungan ng ating health sector sa ating law enforcers at military. May kanya kanya po silang expertise na nung pinagsama ay naging mas maayos ang operasyon laban sa COVID-19,” he added.

Furthermore, Senator Go seeks to amend and enhance RA 11332 by establishing sub-national laboratories in all regional hospitals run by the Department of Health and allowing local government units to establish their own DOH-accredited laboratories and epidemiology and surveillance units, among others.

The bill also aims to further enhance public hospitals to have the capacity to undertake testing, diagnosis, control, and the prevention of infectious diseases.

“’Aside from contact tracing, ‘yung testing po talaga ay very crucial sa pag monitor ng disease activity sa ating population. Kailangan din natin ng mas maraming sub-national laboratories para mapabilis ang pag-identify ng mga pasyente at mas maalagaan o mapagaling ang sakit nila,” Go said.

As per latest information indicated in government’s official COVID-19 tracker website, the Philippines has 30 national laboratories that are capable of COVID-19 testing.

“Mabuti na naparami natin in the past two months ang ating mga sub-national laboratories. Pero ang 30 laboratories for 81 provinces ay kulang pa rin po. Huwag na natin antayin na may susunod na health crisis pa na dumating. Ngayon pa lang, paghandaan na po natin,” Go said.

To make the country better prepared in future pandemics, the bill also requires the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) to formulate a National Public Health Emergency Strategy to address future public health emergencies.

This strategy shall provide for an integrated policy coordination and strategic direction with respect to all matters related to national public health and medical preparedness, and execution and deployment of national response before, during, and following public health emergencies.

“Nakita natin ngayon sa pandemya na talagang kailangan ng collaboration ng iba’t-ibang ahensya. This is why legislation is important in order to strengthen further the role of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases,” Go said.

Go’s proposed measure also seeks to hold liable those who are involved in prohibited acts during a health crisis, such as creating, perpetuating, or spreading false information on social media and other platforms. This includes spreading information clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion; and those participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails, or other similar illegal acts.

Also prohibited under the proposed measure are several forms of “discriminating against health workers, infected and recovered persons such as promoting and encouraging stigma, inciting violence, subjecting them to profiling, detention, or verbal or physical harassment; and intentionally declaring or reporting false information on infectious diseases.”

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