Three days before the easing quarantine restrictions, the number of reported coronavirus infections shot to more than 1,000 cases, the highest single day rise since the outbreak in late January.

But the health department was not worried, explaining that the bulk of the reported infections came from tests done weeks back as the government faced huge backlogs in testing and encoding results.

Nearly 7,000 other people tested positive but still needed to be validated by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines, the gold standard in testing for coronavirus.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said most of the backlog involved cases that had been tested, but the results were not released as many PCR extraction machines broke down.

For instance, one laboratory in Albay province was destroyed by Typhoon “Ambo” (Vongfong) that pummelled Samar island and the rest of the main island of Luzon in early May.

Several machines used by the Philippine Red Cross were also damaged by rainwater that dripped from the ceiling of its facilities.

The University of the Philippines-National Institute of Health (UP-NIH) machines were also out of commission, which meant that as of the last week of May, the country’s actual testing capacity was down to a little over 8,200 a day.

There was also an unvalidated report swirling on social media that some of the PCR testing machines bought from China were not operational, and testing facilities lacked re-agents to come up with complete results.

Vergeire said that if all machines were working at that time, the maximum testing capacity could reach 32,000 a day.

The government’s chief spin doctor, Harry Roque, earlier bragged that the country had exceeded the target to conduct 30,000 tests in a day.

He never apologized to the public even after Vergeire made the clarification following the confusion created by Roque’s irresponsible statement.

After President Rodrigo Duterte announced on Thursday a decision to place the capital region and nearby provinces under a general community quarantine even as infection cases continued to rise, Roque assured the public there was nothing to worry because the number of cases already took about a month to double.

It was another spin as Vergeire, again, clarified that the doubling rate was only up to seven days, from three to four days. Another doctor, Ted Herbosa, said the doubling rate was 10 days.

For the past three months, the Duterte administration has been struggling to communicate to the public an effective and efficient response to the pandemic.

The government has to speak with one voice and send a more coherent and clearer message. The problem is there are too many officials speaking, and with conflicting statements, which tend to confuse the public.

Some have less credibility to talk about the virus, while experts use medical jargon that is more difficult to digest.

One epidemiologist, Dr. John Wong of Ateneo, was discredited when even Duterte administration officials disputed his opinion that the country was already experiencing a second wave of infections.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III cited Wong’s opinion before a Senate hearing, only to flip-flop in another hearing at the House of Representatives.

Wong disappeared like a bubble, after he was blamed by Duque for his erroneous statements.

Whether Wong was accurate or not, his statements that infections in the country were starting to flatten based on data available was hard to believe.

In the first place, the health department’s data was not based on real-time information. It has a huge backlog of test results.

Second, the government’s efforts to test were targeted and focused on people who have shown symptoms of the disease and those exposed to infected persons.

The initial tests done by the health department were even biased because politicians and high-ranking government officials were prioritized.

It turned out that more than 7 percent of those found positive for the virus were asymptomatic and only 2 percent showed severe symptoms that required hospitalization. More than 90 percent had mild symptoms.

Without accurate and reliable data based on real-time information, it would be difficult to determine the actual prevalence of the disease as well as analyze the trend of the infection, which could be the basis to conclude whether or not the curve was flattening.

As it stands, if you plot on a graph the number of infections reported every day since mid-March, it will look like a roller coaster, unlike in other Southeast Asian countries that had begun to flatten the curve.

The Philippines must expand its testing capacity, build and accredit more laboratories to process specimens, as well as improve contract tracing to be able to test, trace and treat people infected by the virus.

The Philippines planned to test 1 to 2 percent of the 108 million population by conducting 30,000 tests daily.

When the health department achieves this milestone, then the government can confidently say it is winning the war against coronavirus.

Even if the health department is saying it has already controlled the spread of the coronavirus, there is a need to improve its strategic communication by talking in one voice.

The confusion and lack of credibility starts when different officials speak with different figures and assessments.

Sometimes the statements contradict each other.

Ex-soldiers are the least credible sources of information during a pandemic because they are not experts in viruses even if they occupy high-ranking positions in the government.

They can muddle the issues and are not really believable.

Lawyers who are used to put a spin to an issue are also less credible and create more confusion.

An epidemiologist is more trusted by the people because of his expertise, but he should make the explanation easy to understand by talking in layman’s terms and avoiding jargon.

Since the outbreak began, officials from the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), who are experts in the field of viruses and deadly pathogens, have been rarely heard, unlike in other countries such as the US, where experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus.

Let’s fight this pandemic by using science and allowing the experts to carry the fight. Not ex-generals, not lawyers. Let us avoid politicizing the crisis. The government should also back off from imposing security measures that instill fear among the people.

Lockdowns have probably helped slow the infection rate but they have a catastrophic effect on the economy. People have lost their jobs and livelihoods, making more people hungry and exacerbating poverty incidence.

Sadly, the coronavirus exposed the weakness of the country’s health system and the government was caught unprepared. The health department chose to beat its chest, boasting in February that it was a model for virus containment when it could have used the time to build quarantine facilities and stock up on testing kits, PPEs, medical supplies and equipment to prepare for a pandemic.

The lockdown has not stopped the infection. The disease can be defeated through mass testing, expanded contract tracing, timely intervention and a clear, honest and credible communication.