–and ASHZEL HACHERO
THE Department of Health (DOH) on Sunday renewed its appeal to the public not to discriminate against or harass health workers and persons suspected of having the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), saying this could jeopardize government’s efforts to stop the spread of the deadly disease.
“We appeal anew to the public not to discriminate against those patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, and our healthcare workers,” said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a press briefing. “Discrimination and the stigma would, in turn, compromise the country’s efforts towards effective case isolation and treatment.”
Vergeire’s statement came as Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra expressed support for the call of the Philippine Medical Association, the Philippine College of Surgeons, and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for COVID-positive individuals and persons under investigation (PUMs) to waive the confidentiality of their medical condition in the interest of public health and safety and to help authorities in conducting contact-tracing.
“This will enable other people they have been in close contact with to take the necessary precaution or remedial measures to protect themselves, without having to further burden the DOH with the tedious task of contact tracing,” Guevarra said.
“Both the PMA and the Data Privacy Commission provide the ethical and legal basis for this action in times of public health emergency, and the Department of Justice affirms its validity,” he said.
The Philippine Medical Association, the Philippine College of Surgeons, and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, in a joint statement, said: “Being diagnosed as COVID-19 positive is not a sin, a crime, or a stigma. But it is inequitable and counter-productive for COVID-19 patients or PUIs (persons under investigation) to conceal their true condition, thereby possibly infecting health workers and depriving those with whom they have been in close contact the opportunity to take the necessary precautionary or remedial measures.”
“We reiterate our call that they should not be discriminated against. We however pray that their tragedy be turned into heroism by their honesty and voluntary waiver of confidentiality of their medical condition for the greater good,” they also said.
Vergeire said persons having symptoms of COVID-19 may decide not to get tested for fear of getting discriminated.
“Discrimination and the stigma against patients may encourage people to hide being COVID-19-positive,” she said.
The call comes as the government is targeting to conduct mass testing for COVID-19 beginning April 14.
Vergeire said guidelines for the planned mass testing are being prepared.
“We assure you that as our testing capacity rises, so will our mass testing implementation. We will be coming out with a comprehensive guideline on this in the coming days,” said Vergeire.
The guidelines include who should undergo mass testing, which types of testing kits will be used, and who should interpret results of the tests.
Initially, however, Vergeire said they are looking to include all persons under investigation (PUIs) and persons under monitoring (PUMs) with COVID-19 symptoms, as well as high-risk individuals, such as pregnant and those with pre-existing conditions, and health workers.
The Philippine Medical Association, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, and the Philippine College of Surgeons said public health and safety prevails over medical confidentiality.
In a joint statement, they noted the increasing number of incidents of COVID-19 patients seeking treatments in hospitals or clinics without divulging their true condition, thereby compromising the health institutions and workers, making it difficulty for contact tracing procedures, and multiplying number of unknowing virus carriers who are not properly tested, quarantined, isolated or treated.
“We earnestly request that COVID-19 positive patients and PUIs voluntarily waive the confidentiality of their medical condition and forthright inform those they have in close contact with, and, that the government, particularly the DOH, prudently uses and promptly shares medical information to enable all concerned authorities, institutions and persons to effectively take precautionary and remedial measures,” they said.
By being candid, they said the COVID-19 patients and PUIs will help most their family members, friends, coworkers and those they were close with.
They added that current laws and rules grant the government sufficient authority and basis to lift the confidentiality of their medical condition.
They also said a waiver of the confidentiality rule will help avoid further infection, facilitate contact tracing, and promptly alert those affected.
“The present pandemic requires proactive and decisive steps that must be based on facts, science and the law, not on politics, posturing or partiality,” they said.