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An outdoor training session for neighborhood-based emergency health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines.

Fighting COVID-19 in the Philippines

8 Ways USAID ReachHealth Supports Pandemic Response

As COVID-19 swept the world in 2020, the Philippines became Southeast Asia’s most affected country.

RTI International has been supporting the COVID-19 response in the Philippines through ReachHealth, a five-year United States Agency for International Development (USAID) project that strengthens and improves access to family planning and maternal and child health services.

Building on 14 years of RTI experience working with local governments in the Philippines to improve health outcomes, the USAID ReachHealth Project supports the COVID-19 response in 15 priority local government units across the country. Working closely with the Department of Health (DOH), the Department of Interior and Local Governance, UN agencies, the private sector, and civil society organizations, we strengthen the government’s emergency and ongoing response at all levels.

Our support has included operationalizing nationwide COVID-19 policies, rolling out vaccines, helping facilities access national COVID-19 financing and testing kits, strengthening the capacities of health workers on infection prevention and control and case management, improving contact tracing, and supporting risk communication and community engagement efforts. Most recently, ReachHealth has helped the country prepare for the roll out of child vaccines and the safe reopening of in-person schools.

Since ReachHealth began supporting the Philippines' pandemic response, we have trained over 20,000 people and reached nearly 37 million people with messages on preventing gender-based violence and COVID-19’s spread.

Here are eight of the important ways we have and continue to respond to COVID-19 in the Philippines:

1. Strengthening community health and support systems

Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams, or BHERTs, usually connect community members to health facilities — but during times of emergency their work becomes more important than ever. These neighborhood-based teams formed the frontline of efforts to delay COVID-19’s spread and locally contain the pandemic by communicating risk, facilitating contact tracing and vaccination, and connecting communities with broader local health systems. ReachHealth works to ensure BHERTs in hotspot communities are active, effective, and trained on critical elements of the COVID-19 community response, including essential behaviors to prevent the virus’ spread, infection prevention and control, vaccination and testing protocols, contact tracing, and quarantine and isolation. ReachHealth has helped train over 7,800 people on contact tracing and rapid response so far.

2. Increasing vaccine coverage

In 2021, ReachHealth collaborated with the DOH and local actors to plan for vaccine rollouts. We developed public messaging for local governments to spread the word, updated FAQs for community health responders like BHERTs, and supported health facility planning and preparation. Once vaccines were available, ReachHealth also helped speed up the roll out by deploying 28 mobile vaccine teams across the country to ensure even the most remote communities got access. ReachHealth has established or supported over 200 vaccination sites in the Philippines. More than 2.8 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated with ReachHealth’s support.

A woman receives an injection at a ReachHealth event in the Philippines.

Grace Jose receives a COVID vaccine at a vaccination site in Caloocan City. Photo by Christian Rieza/USAID ReachHealth

3. Strengthening health and testing facilities

Throughout the pandemic, the science on COVID-19 and how to address it has evolved. To help health facilities keep up, ReachHealth provided training to over 5,000 people on case management and over 3,000 people on infection prevention and control. We also partnered with local governments to establish 10 additional mobile testing units and four community testing centers in vulnerable areas. As COVID-19 testing increased, so did the demand for accredited labs that could process tests quickly. By providing support, ReachHealth helped increase the number of accredited labs across the country and reduced testing times to just a few hours in eight labs in Mindanao and Luzon. 

Vilma Cabral gets tested for COVID-19 at a USAID-supported community-based testing center in the Philippines.

Vilma Cabral gets tested for COVID-19 at a USAID-supported community-based testing center in the Philippines. Photo by Rosana Ombao for USAID

4. Supporting a data-driven response

The DOH collaborated with the World Health Organization to launch a mobile application, COVID KAYA, that supports frontline responders with contact tracing and case monitoring. The introduction of any new, centralized data system across regions with varying needs and infrastructure can be challenging and uneven. Our team provided technical assistance to help local governments roll out the application, and directly trained officials, health workers, and personnel from health epidemiology units on its use.

5. Addressing gender-based violence

In the Philippines, 1 in 20 women and girls aged 15-49 have experienced sexual violence. COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines brought extended periods of restricted movement and home confinement for millions of people — an unprecedented situation that worsened violence against women and children at home. ReachHealth supported the continued functioning of gender-based violence (GBV) services, such as a 24-hour helpline, while a messaging campaign, Hindi kailangang magtiis! (You don’t need to suffer in silence!), sought to prevent GBV and to let people know about available services. Since October 2020, this campaign has reached over 9 million Filipinos on Facebook alone.

6. Distributing essential equipment and supplies

Frontline health workers needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to care for their patients safely. In partnership with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, ReachHealth supported the distribution of PPE donated by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency to 109 hospitals, rural health units, and quarantine facilities in vulnerable areas across the country. We also partnered with Proctor & Gamble to distribute more than 700,000 face masks. ReachHealth is now providing PPE and communication materials to local schools to aid in the safe reopening of in-person classes.

Boxes of personal protective equipment destined for health facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic in Cebu City, Philippines.

Boxes of personal protective equipment destined for health facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic in Cebu City, Philippines. Photo by Robyn Lacson/USAID ReachHealth

7. Prioritizing water, sanitation, and hygiene

Although water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) was not a focus area for ReachHealth, our team recognized that good sanitation and hygiene are critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19. We developed a tool to assess and prioritize sites for handwashing stations and installed these facilities in more than 200 quarantine centers, shelters, and public spaces. We also incorporated WASH messaging into our trainings and messaging campaigns and partnered with the DOH and Procter & Gamble to procure and distribute 70,000 hygiene kits to adults and young people. We have reached over 2.5 million Filipinos with WASH support so far, and our team continues to collaborate with local WASH organizations to bolster their ongoing work.

U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim uses one of the 16 handwashing stations installed in facilities and communities around the city.

U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim uses one of the 16 handwashing stations installed in facilities and communities around the city. Photo by Rosana Ombao/USAID ReachHealth

8. Keeping our focus on family planning

Family planning (FP) continues to be an essential health service, especially in times of social and economic uncertainty. While our team stepped up to contribute their expertise to the COVID-19 response, they remain committed to expanding access to quality FP services across the Philippines. In March 2020, 25% of surveyed health centers reported a disruption in FP services and 81% saw a decline in people seeking FP care. From creating online resources to helping service providers improve their teleconsultation abilities, our team rapidly adapted approaches to accommodate the new normal and ensure all Filipinos could continue to access FP care. More than 2,000 teleconsultations on family planning have occurred since.

A team of "Nurses on Wheels" delivers family planning supplies to neighborhood health stations in Cainta.

A team of "Nurses on Wheels" delivers family planning supplies to neighborhood health stations in Cainta. Photo by Mon Joshua Vergara/Cainta Municipal Health Office