24 foreigners under probe for virus; Visas on arrival for Chinese tourists halted

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    Keeping ‘em safe. Students and their teacher in a Chinese school in Quezon City wear masks as a safeguard against the novel coronavirus. REUTERS PHOTO
    Keeping ‘em safe. Students and their teacher in a Chinese school in Quezon City wear masks as a safeguard against the novel coronavirus. REUTERS PHOTO

    TWENTY-FOUR foreigners, most of them Chinese who have a travel history to Wuhan, China and are manifesting symptoms of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), are being monitored closely by the Department of Health pending the results of their laboratory tests.

    Health Secretary Francisco Duque III yesterday said the agency originally was monitoring 27 persons but three have been discharged after their laboratory results tested negative for the dreaded virus.

    “There are still no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the country,” Duque stressed.

    From the remaining 24, the health chief said 13 are awaiting results from the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) for screening, 6 are waiting laboratory results from the Victorian Infectious Disease Reference Laboratory, while 5 others are still in the process of being collected samples for laboratory testing.

    The country yesterday stopped issuing visas on arrival to Chinese visitors “to slow down travel, and possibly help prevent the entry of the virus,” according to Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente.

    Morente stressed that Chinese visitors have not been barred from entering the country.

    The “visa upon arrival” facility has been offered to Chinese visitors since 2017 in an effort to boost tourism. Those eligible included investors and businessmen, athletes, delegates to international conventions and tour groups.

    Chinese tourists accounted for 22 percent of the 7.5 million visitors to the Philippines between January and November last year, making China the second top nation of origin for international travelers to the country.

    “The Civil Aeronautics Board has already suspended direct flights from Wuhan province. We are now temporarily suspending the issuance of VUA for Chinese nationals to slow down the influx of group tours,” Morente said.

    The government recently limited the validity of the VUA for Chinese tourists to 30 days without extension.

    Last Monday, the DOH said it was keeping a close eye on 11 foreigners in the country with a travel history to Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated.

    The rise in the number of persons under investigation (PUIs) in the country comes in the wake of the rapid spread of the virus, with the World Health Organization reporting there are now 4,515 cases worldwide, including 106 deaths. The WHO also said there is a “high risk” of transmission at the regional and global level.

    The DOH yesterday convened the Interagency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases in its main office in Manila to try and keep the country free from the virus.

    Included in the task force are the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Local and Interior Government, Justice, Labor and Employment, Tourism, Transportation, and Information and Communications Technology as well as the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Civil Aviation Authority, Civil Aviation Board, Philippine Coast Guard, and the WHO.

    Duque said the task force will support Filipinos based in China and adopt a comprehensive transport and quarantine plans for OFWS who want to voluntarily return to the Philippines.

    DFA Undersecretary Brigido Dulay said they are coordinating with their Chinese counterparts regarding the possible repatriation of Filipinos in affected areas.

    “I wish to inform our kababayans that the government will take care of you whether you choose to stay or return home,” said Duque.

    “(Despite the lockdown) the treatment for foreigners is different. Anybody who wants to come home can come home. They just have to undergo quarantine procedures for 14 days,” said Dulay.

    Duque added they are preparing a facility that will serve as quarantine area for those who will choose to be repatriated from China. He said they are prepared to shoulder all the necessary expenses for those who will be placed under quarantine for 14 days.

    “Our government is prepared to assist our nationals there and we will be issuing the appropriate travel advisory later. We have also established hotlines in our foreign missions,” Dulay said.

    There are an estimated 300 Filipinos in Hubei Province, including 150 in its capital city of Wuhan.

    Duque added they are awaiting the arrival of testing kits from aboard to hasten the process of determining if one is positive for the virus or not.

    SELF-QUARANTINE

    The country’s top envoy to China yesterday asked Filipinos there, especially in Wuhan City, to go on “self-quarantine” and minimize contact with crowds.

    Ambassador Chito Sta. Romana said no Filipino in China has been infected by the virus.

    “Ang abiso din namin sa Filipino community ay self-quarantine, especially in Wuhan; stay in your homes and minimize contact with others. This is the safest way for now,” he said.

    He said Filipinos in China who need assistance should contact the Consulate General in Shanghai at its hotline numbers +85291554023.

    There are about 229, 000 Filipinos living and working in China.

    Several private schools in Manila extend the suspension of their classes yesterday as part of their precaution against the spread of the virus. Philippine Cultural College, Saint Jude Catholic School, St. Stephen’s High School, Tiong Se Academy and Uno High School in Manila suspended their classes. Chiang Kai Shek College also suspended classes in its two campuses, the Algue and Narra, also in Manila, while classes at Hope Christian High School are suspended until Wednesday.

    CRUISE SHIPS

    The DOJ yesterday said the Bureau of Quarantine and not the Bureau of Immigration will conduct the health screening of passengers of two ships from China presently docked at Pier 15 of Manila’s South Harbor.

    The World Dream Cruise carrying 700 passengers arrived yesterday morning from Hong Kong while MV Ligulao docked last Monday from Lianyungang, Jiangsu, China.

    “Health screening of the passengers are undertaken by our health officials through the Bureau of Quarantine,” DOJ Undersecretary Markk Perete said.

    Coast guard spokesman Capt.Armand Balilo said the World Dream Cruise had been scheduled to proceed to Subic but that part of the trip had been canceled. The ship leaves tomorrow for Hong Kong.

    Airline Operators Council Chairman Allan Nepomuceno reported a decline of about 70 to 80 percent of passengers in flights to and from China amid the spread of the virus.

    HOUSE INVITES DUQUE

    The House of Representatives yesterday summoned Duque to appear before the plenary today to brief lawmakers on what measures the government is taking to prepare for the possible entry of the novel coronavirus in the country.

    Congressmen unanimously adopted the motion of majority leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez to invite Duque to attend the session and shed light on the various concerns of lawmakers under the Question Hour.

    Deputy Speaker Mujiv Hataman of Basilan, the presiding officer, declared the majority leader’s motion carried after no one rose to oppose it.

    Romualdez raised the motion after Quezon Rep. Angelina Tan, chair of the House committee on health, delivered a privilege speech where she questioned the government’s preparedness in dealing with the virus.

    “We need to know if the Department of Health is prepared and not just prepared but fully prepared if ever cases of novel coronavirus is reported in the country,” she told the plenary.

    “Mr. Speaker, as chair of the House committee on health, there are questions to ask and we need specifics regarding the coronavirus and this means that the House and the or of its power and oversight functions, is perforce to call Secretary of Health to appear before this very Chamber in order to shed light on this pressing health concern,” said Tan.

    The Question Hour is a period where lawmakers confront members of the Executive Department, particularly Cabinet Secretaries, and hold them accountable for their acts and the operation of the government. – With Ashzel Hachero, Victor Reyes, Rod Lagusad, Wendell Vigilia and Reuters