THE Philippines is no longer novel coronavirus-free.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III yesterday said a 38-year-old female Chinese tourist who arrived last Jan. 21 from Wuhan has tested positive for the virus that has so far claimed the lives of at least 170 Chinese, becoming the first confirmed nCoV case in the Philippines.
Duque said laboratory test results from the Victorian Infectious Disease Reference Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia showed the tourist, currently confined in a Manila hospital, is a carrier of the virus.
Duque said the patient is asymptomatic, meaning she is not showing symptoms of the virus. He added the tourist arrived in the Philippines from Hong Kong and then traveled to Cebu and Dumaguete City.
“The patient sought consultation and was admitted in one of the country’s government hospitals last Jan. 25 after experiencing mild cough,” Duque.
“We are working closely with the hospital where the patient is admitted and have activated the Incident Command System of the said hospital for appropriate management, specifically on infection control, case management, and containment,” he added.
Duque told the public to remain calm, saying the DOH is on top of the situation.
“We were able to detect the first confirmed case because of our strong surveillance system, close coordination with World Health Organization and other national agencies, and the utilization of DOH’s decision tool,” said Duque.
Last Wednesday, a 29-year-old Chinese male being tested for the virus died at the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, with pneumonia as the cause of death. The patient had tested positive twice for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The specimen from the deceased is still being tested for possible nCoV infection.
Department of Health Epidemiology Bureau Director Dr. Ferchito Avelino said they are coordinating with the Bureau of Quarantine so the Chinese female’s co-airline passengers could be traced.
“For planes, we do the rules of ‘four’ to identify passengers from passengers from the back and both passengers from both sides and we contact these passengers and advise them accordingly,” said Avelino.
He said they have also alerted their Region 7 office to check on the places the patient has visited in Cebu and Dumaguete.
“At the community, we are looking at the establishment they stayed and advise the establishment owner to identify the employees that had been in contact with the patient and do the mandatory quarantine to observe them if they manifest signs and symptoms of respiratory infection,” said Avelino.
In all, 29 persons have been probed by the DOH since the start of their surveillance on the virus believed to have come from Wuhan.
Of the 29, 23 are currently confined in different government hospitals, including the positive case. Five have been discharged but are still under strict monitoring.
Duque said the Bureau of Quarantine remains on high alert and is in constant coordination with authorities from all ports of entry for stricter border surveillance.
Duque also guaranteed that agency’s health facilities are equipped and prepared to receive and care for PUIs and confirmed nCoV cases.
In the face of mounting calls to ban Chinese tourists, Samal island near Davao on Thursday banned not just tourists from China but from all countries affected by the coronavirus to the popular beach spot.
Duque, meanwhile, changed his stand on the temporary ban on Chinese visitors, saying he is now in favor of restricting the entry of travelers from Hubei Province of China, whose capital is Wuhan.
“I will strongly recommend to the emerging disease task force a temporary restriction of travelers from the entire Hubei province of China,” he said.
The Inter-agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases is scheduled to convene today, Friday, to discuss the first confirmed case and other related developments.
He also said the coverage of the travel restriction may expand depending on the assessment of the World Health Organization.
“We will be waiting for the assessment of the WHO and recommendation whether to add to the list some more places with a relatively higher burden of 2019-nCoV infection,” Duque said, a day after telling lawmakers the DOH is not yet considering imposing a temporary travel ban on all tourists coming from mainland China.
The country’s envoy to China said a travel ban on Chinese visitors to the Philippines is not needed even as the death toll of from virus continued to rise.
“A travel ban in a sense is not needed because a travel ban has been imposed by China itself,” Ambassador Chito Sta. Romana said in a television interview.
“The World Health Organization Director General actually visited Beijing and had talks with Chinese officials. He himself said evacuation is not necessary, quarantine is the best way,” he added.
The Department of Foreign Affairs had earlier said it is preparing for the repatriation of Filipinos in affected areas in China. There are about 300 Filipinos in Hubei province, including 150 in Wuhan city.
The DFA also directed its embassy in Beijing not to issue visas to residents of Hubei province and Chinese citizens with recent history of travel to Hubei.
DUQUE TAKEN TO TASK
An administration lawmaker said Duque’s warning against barring mainland Chinese tourists amid the novel coronavirus scare is “misplaced” because he seems to be assuming the job of the foreign affairs department.
“To me, his (Duque’s) concern is misplaced because as health secretary, his concern is not about what another country would think because that is the concern of the foreign relations department. His concern is how to protect the health of Filipinos,” Rep. Ruffy Biazon told reporters.
Duque last Wednesday warned Congress that there will be “political and diplomatic” repercussions if mainland Chinese, especially from Wuhan, will be barred from entering the country as part of measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the country.
Duque said China might question why the Philippine government is not implementing the ban on other countries that also have confirmed corona virus cases.
“I don’t think we should compare other countries that have positive coronavirus patients. We can’t compare it to China,” he said. “China, that is the source (of the virus).”
Duque appeared before the plenary during question hour to brief lawmakers on what measures the government is taking to prepare for the possible entry of the novel coronavirus (nCoV) in the country.
Rep. Lito Atienza cautioned government against creating panic, saying the coronavirus is still being investigated by local and world health experts.
“Why scare the public about this novel coronavirus (n-CoV)? Based on Secretary Duque’s presentation, the Philippines, with God’s blessing, has a very good record of not being adversely affected by diseases such as SARS in 2003 where the virus was imported and no record of community transmission, and MERS-CoV in 2014-2015. So why should we allow panic to rule our people’s minds?” he said.
“Let’s not cause panic and let’s assuage the people with these facts. Maybe soon, a vaccine may be discovered and people will again spend billions of pesos all over the world. We may all be stampeded by some people and institutional greed,” Atienza added.
TEMPORARY TRAVEL BAN
Senate president pro tempore Ralph Recto urged Malacanang to impose a temporary travel ban for Chinese tourists who want to get to the Philippines in a bid to prevent the novel coronavirus from reaching here.
“I think it is time to put a temporary ‘Do not enter sign’ on our doorstep for visitors from China. Let us explain to them that we are not permanently closing our doors. This is not a permanent Great Wall. This is only during the duration of the coronavirus crisis,” Recto said.
Recto said such move is consistent with what China is doing to stave off the spread of the virus.
“We will only be borrowing a page from their manual. If Hong Kong has drastically reduced high-speed train and ferry services from China, then why can’t we do the same? Recto said, referring to the territory’s decision to slash cross-border travel with mainland China.
The same view was aired by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who said: “My proposal is a temporary travel ban of at least 30 days in light of the first confirmed case of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the country. Our travel ban must firmly include both air and sea travel to prevent a local outbreak. This includes a temporary ban on all cruise ships from docking at any of our ports.”
Some private schools in Manila extended the suspension of their classes up to today, Friday, as part of their precautions against the spread of the virus.
Classes at Hope Christian High School and Tiong Se Academy are suspended. Classes at Saint Jude Catholic School and St. Stephen’s High School are suspended until February 8.
Private schools are allowed to suspend classes even without permission from the Department of Education. – With Ashzel Hachero, Wendell Vigilia, Raymond Africa, and Rod Lagusad