Virus tests not needed for returning workers

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BACK TO ‘NORMAL’ A checkpoint at the Camachile-Balintawak area in Quezon City leads to heavy traffic buildup on Sunday. Filipinos return to work on Monday after the easing of a two month lockdown that was eased over the weekend. —RICHARD A. REYES

The Department of Health (DOH) has issued guidelines for people who will return to work as Metro Manila gradually eases quarantine restrictions.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire on Sunday said employees are not required to undergo a coronavirus test prior to returning to work.

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She said the DOH did not recommend testing for people who did not have any exposure to any suspected or confirmed new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patient.

“Our protocol is to guide employers. We have emphasized that symptomatic screening is ideal, and test only when symptomatic,” Vergeire said in a Viber message to reporters.

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“[The] IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force) resolution stated that in no case shall testing be a condition for return to work, so we expect that specific agencies shall implement and enforce the IATF resolutions,” she also said, referring to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Infection control procedures

Under the guidelines, daily temperature and symptom monitoring of all staff who report for work will be conducted.

Employers must enforce infection control procedures such as physical distancing, wearing of masks, meticulous hand hygiene and cough etiquette.

Appropriate personal protective equipment will also be worn based on the setting of work, and this includes wearing of face shields and masks for those who render service via face-to-face encounters, among others.

Returning employees and workers physically returning to their place of employment will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms.

Those who are symptomatic with relevant history of travel/exposure on the date of work resumption will not be allowed to physically return to work and must consult with their primary care provider.

Those who were symptomatic with relevant history of travel/exposure within the last 14 days prior to the date of work resumption will present certificate of quarantine completion duly issued by the step-down care facility or local health office.

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If asymptomatic within the last 14 days prior to the date of work resumption, employees and workers can be cleared to physically return to work.

Limitations

The DOH states that while testing is an important component of the response against COVID-19, limitations on their reliability and validity will be recognized.

“Testing using RT-PCR (real-time polymerase chain reaction) among representative samples for baseline can be conducted to look for any evidence of asymptomatic transmitters,” DOH Department Memorandum No. 2020-0220 reads.

“If tested positive, the returning employee is a COVID-19 case and will be isolated and referred accordingly for appropriate management. If negative, returning employee can continue working with usual precaution,” it added.

“If initially tested negative but developed symptoms, the employee must be tested accordingly,” it said.

Alternatively, the guidelines provide that testing using FDA (Food and Drug Administration)-approved rapid antibody-based tests among representative samples for baseline can also be conducted up to every 14 days.

The DOH guidelines also provide that the cost of the test not covered by Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) will be shouldered by the employer.

Withdrawn statement

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez took back his statement that workers in areas under modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) ran the risk of losing their jobs if they refused to report to work because of the lack of mass transportation and company shuttles.

“Let me withdraw that statement. It might be misunderstood,” he said hours later.

Lopez said this “doesn’t reflect well on the companies if they don’t provide assistance to the employees.” He made the comments on May 16, the first day of MECQ for high-risk areas like Metro Manila.

Under MECQ, all businesses allowed under a general community quarantine can operate, provided that only half of the workforce is on-site. This means that even businesses not considered essential can now go back to work.

The problem, however, is that the same guidelines require everyone to stay at home and mass transportation is still suspended—inconsistencies that were earlier pointed out by a top official of the Philippine Retailers Association.

Only such modes of transportation as private cars, company shuttles and bikes are allowed under MECQ.

Asked on Saturday in an online briefing about the government’s plan to help small businesses that don’t have their own shuttles, Lopez replied that businesses were encouraged to provide shuttle services and a temporary accommodation for their workers.

He said employees could also use their private vehicles.

In a follow-up question, he was asked on Viber if workers could refuse to report to work in case the company could not provide transportation.

In late afternoon, Lopez said refusing to work could reflect badly on the character of workers, who should have a “positive attitude.”

These workers run the risk of losing their job, he said.

“This will have to be settled within the company, between the employer and employee, to find ways that are workable. [It] could be near-site accommodations, carpooling, shuttling, vehicle plans, etc. Usually, they both find ways,” he added.

Worried of infection at work

Results of a preliminary nationwide survey showed that a majority of Filipinos would be returning to work “with a sense of worry” that they might get infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Nearly 60 percent of 400 respondents said they were not comfortable about going to work, according to PhilhealthCare Inc., the health maintenance organization that commissioned the survey.

They were interviewed over the telephone, with 33 percent coming from Metro Manila.

Another 400 respondents are set to be interviewed, which, the company said, would give a clearer picture of the public sentiment.

PhilCare partnered with Fernando Paragas, a University of the Philippines professor who serves as the survey’s lead researcher.

“Once complete, this survey should enable employers and even policymakers to come up with measures that will help employees cope with the situation,” PhilCare president and chief executive officer Jaeger Tanco said in a statement.

Earlier this week, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a televised briefing that companies should not reopen if they did not have their own shuttles or if the workers did not have their own cars.

Roque said it was a policy decision. “We want to restart the economy but not at the expense of having a second wave.”

Consult workers

Labor group Defend Jobs Philippines on Sunday said clear policies and protocols to prevent COVID-19 in the workplace should be formulated in consultation with workers and their organizations.

Defend Jobs cited the need to ensure working and adequately stocked and manned clinics, infirmaries and health facilities in the workplace.

It demanded that safety officers and health committees in the workplace be appointed.

Workers should be required to undergo coronavirus testing, regular checkups, thermal scanning, disinfection and sanitation procedures, the group said.

Employers must also provide workers with accommodation and transportation, Defend Jobs said, while those who fail to enforce COVID-19-related measures must be penalized. INQ

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