Tourism players rap  ‘balikbayan’ testing,  quarantine release delays


TOURISM stakeholders are urging the Department of Transportation (DOTr) to increase the number of accredited health facilities at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) to fast-track the Covid-testing of arriving balikbayans (homecoming Filipinos).

Tourism Congress of the Philippines President Jose C. Clemente III told the BusinessMirror he made this request to the Department of Tourism (DOT), which facilitated a meeting with DOTr’s One Stop Shop (OSS) group to discuss the issue. “I’ve received several reports of balikbayans getting Covid-tested on the sixth day of their hotel quarantine, instead of the fifth day, as the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases [IATF] had ordered.”

At present, only two medical companies are accredited at the Naia to test passengers for Covid-19 at quarantine facilities: Detoxicare Molecular Labs of Philippine Airlines, and the Philippine Airport Diagnostic Laboratory. Passengers are supposed to book their RT-PCR tests and pay for them online, prior to their departure from their host countries.

In previous IATF rules, vaccinated balikbayans from Yellow List countries like the United States and Canada were supposed to quarantine in a hotel for five days, get tested on the fifth day, and leave their hotel the next day after receiving a negative test result.

Clemente said, “To ease the burden on the two currently accredited RT-PCR testing labs, we asked OSS if tour operators could directly engage the services of testing labs and package this in our services to our clients. The OSS responded that we could do this as long as the labs fulfill the requirements.”

He added that increasing the number of accredited Covid testers at Naia is “vital to the quick processing of our balikbayans, so they can join their families more quickly after the mandated hotel quarantine.” He noted, “We are already receiving an increasing number of balikbayan arrivals who are home for the holidays.” The passenger-arrivals cap at Naia has already been increased to 4,000 a day.

There are currently 122 facilities and laboratories accredited by the   Department of Health for Covid testing in the National Capital Region.

Lengthy list of requirements

In the early days of the pandemic lockdown, many hotels actually arranged for the RT-PCR testing of their arriving guests for quarantine, and included this service in the room rate package. The guests were picked up by hotel car at the Naia, brought to the hotel overnight, then to the testing facility the next day, and back to the hotel. The guests continued their quarantine until they received a negative test result.

Separately, DOT Undersecretary for Legal Affairs Edwin R. Enrile said, “We are supporting the accreditation of more RT-PCR testers that can be used by arriving passengers.”

He added, “The DOTr-OSS group is generally open to other RT-PCR testers as long as they comply [with the requirements for accreditation]. There are just more requirements of the Covid testing facility, as explained by OSS such as double swabbing [e.g. one swab to determine positivity, one swab sample to do genome sequencing to determine Covid variant in case the passenger is positive].”

He said the TCP already has a list of requirements for other health facilities to be accredited. Clemente said the requirements were rather lengthy; among them, the testing facility should have the ability to hook up to the central data base of the OSS.

The quarantine period of vaccinated balikbayans from Yellow List countries has been further cut to three days as of November 22, 2021, as long as they present a negative RT-PCR result from a test taken 72 hours prior to departure.

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