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WHO field visit to Baguio City and Benguet Province: Models for contact tracing and COVID-19 response in the Philippines

Baguio City, in the Benguet province of the Cordillera Administrative Region, has been commended for their local COVID-19 response and contact tracing strategy led by Mayor Benjamin Magalong. On 10 July, a World Health Organization delegation led by WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Dr Takeshi Kasai and WHO Representative in the Philippines Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe, together with DOH Undersecretary for Health-Field Implementation and Coordination Dr Gerardo Bayugo, conducted a field visit to Baguio City and adjacent Benguet provincial capital La Trinidad to share information and identify best practices in contact tracing and management.

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WHO-DOH joint meeting for COVID-19 response on 10 July at Baguio Country Club. (1st row L-R) BGHMC Chief Dr Ricardo Runez Jr., Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Dr Takeshi Kasai and WHO Representative to the Philippines Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe.
Photo credit: DOH/K. Sam

The team was briefed by local chief executives and members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) of Baguio City and Benguet, and conducted site visits to COVID-19 response centres and facilities such as the La Trinidad Operations Center at Municipal Gymnasium, the Provincial Temporary Treatment and Management Facility at Wangal, Benguet, the Baguio City Community Isolation Unit at Sto. Nino Hospital and the accredited subnational laboratory at Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center (BGHMC).

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Dr Kasai and Dr Abeyasinghe with representatives of the DOH Central Office visit the La Trinidad Operations Center for COVID-19.
Photo credit: WHO/C. Cimatu

The WHO and DOH joint delegation met with the Department of Health Center for Health Development (DOH-CHD)-Cordillera OIC Regional Director, Dr Amelita M. Pangilinan and her staff, Baguio City and Benguet local officials and members of the Regional IATF to share best practices and insights on strengthening preparedness and response to COVID-19.

Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong also briefed the delegation on their contact tracing strategy. “I cannot over emphasize the value of contact tracing, as one of the critical pillars in our fight against COVID-19, along with isolation, testing, and treatment. For all the other pillars to work, contact tracing should be done speedily and effectively. The use of various analytical tools and cognitive interviewing skills are essential,” said Mayor Magalong. “We are introducing new innovations, but it largely requires leadership and the active involvement of local chief executives. Seamless collaboration among the health sector, law enforcement, community and local government is crucial in creating a strong and comprehensive response in this battle. If we work as one, we will heal as one.”

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Regional Director Kasai listens as Baguio City Mayor Magalong shows WHO and DOH how the Baguio Contact Tracing System works.
Photo credit: WHO/C. Cimatu

Dr Abeyasinghe commended Baguio General Hospital for its work to implement the Universal Health Care law and participate in the WHO Solidarity Trial to test possible treatments for COVID-19. He also highlighted the solidarity and hard work of the community in Benguet Province, where essential workers braved rough roads and steep mountains to deliver supplies to quarantined populations in remote areas.

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WHO Representative to the Philippines Dr Abeyasinghe undergoes a temperature check as part of the COVID-19 protocols in Baguio City Community Isolation Unit (BCCIU).
Photo credit: WHO/C. Cimatu

“Baguio City is far ahead in their contact tracing because local officials are working together with health officials. This should be replicated in other LGUs in the Philippines,” said Dr Abeyasinghe.

Undersecretary Bayugo reiterated the DOH’s commitment to the Cordillera Administrative Region in their fight against COVID-19, in close collaboration and partnership with WHO, and expressed his appreciation to BGHMC for their initiatives to help Baguio City, the Cordillera region and nearby provinces during the pandemic.

In recognition of Baguio City’s accomplishments in the COVID-19 response, City Mayor Magalong has been appointed by President Duterte as the new ‘Contact Tracing Czar’ for the Philippines, bringing his expertise as a local official to the national contract tracing system.