GOVERNMENT yesterday imposed a partial ban on travel to and from South Korea amid a surge in cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) there.
The ban is “effective immediately,” said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
Based on the decision of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), travelers from South Korea’s North Gyeongsang province, including Daegu City and Cheongdo County, will not be allowed to enter the Philippines.
Exempted are Filipinos and their foreign spouses or children, and holders of permanent resident and diplomatic visas from North Gyeongsang,
Also banned is travel to the whole of South Korea, except for Filipinos who are permanent residents of South Korea, Filipinos leaving for study, and Filipinos returning for work, provided that they sign a written declaration acknowledging the risks involved.
South Korea now has the most cases outside China where the COVID-19 outbreak started.
It reported 169 new cases on Wednesday, pushing the total tally to more than 1,000, with the numbers expected to rise as the government widens its testing.
Of the new cases, 134 were from Daegu city, where a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which has been linked to outbreaks, is located.
Duque said the travel restriction “will be reviewed and re-evaluated within the next 48 hours based on new developments.”
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, asked why is there a difference in the travel ban of inbound and outbound travelers, said, “Because the cases are highly-concentrated in those areas. We, the task force, felt that we can impose the temporary travel ban in those areas for now, but subject to the 48 hours assessment and reassessment,” he said.
At the Athletes Village in New Clark City, Tarlac, 445 Filipinos from the M/V Diamond Princess cruise ship that had been docked in Japan, including 440 crew members and five passengers, have been placed under quarantine, according to Health Assistant Secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.
Add to those undergoing the 14-day quarantine period, Vergeire said, are the 13 members of the repatriation team from the DOH (nine) and Department of Foreign Affairs (four), thereby bringing the total to 458.
Duque said the DOH is prepared to handle quarantined individuals who will later turn positive for COVID-19.
“As observed in other countries, there is still a possibility that our nationals may eventually test positive upon their return. We have prepared and equipped our hospitals and laboratory facilities, and allocated all necessary resources and PPEs should this happen,” Duque said.
Vergeire said all quarantined individuals will be assessed twice daily, once via telemedicine and another through actual physical examination. They will also be provided with food, hygiene kits, and other health services.
An ambulance team is also on standby 24/7 to conduct hospital referrals, if needed, with 21 DOH hospitals tapped to cater to those who may manifest respiratory symptoms or fever.
Transported in two batches of 309 and 136, respectively, the repatriated Filipinos arrived in the country on Tuesday night at the Clark International Airport.
“All of the Filipinos were asymptomatic throughout the flight and were transferred directly to the quarantine facility in NCC,” said Duque.
As to the 80 Filipinos left in Japan after turning positive for COVID-19, Duque said they remain under the care of Japanese medical facilities.
“The return of the 10 out of the 80 that have been discharged already are still being discussed,” he also said.
Duque, asked about a warning of the World Health Organization that a pandemic may be looming, Duque said government made preparations as early as last month when the number of cases began to spike.
“We have been preparing long before this anticipation manifested by the WHO of a possible pandemic. And we are doing this at different levels,” he said.
Among their preparations, he said, are at the level of incident planning, management in case there will be local transmission, surveillance and risk-assessment, laboratory capacity building, and clinical management and hospital care.
Earlier, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the virus from China has a pandemic potential. However, he said, COVID-19 has not yet reached the level of pandemic.
The Philippines has 614 persons under investigation (PUIs) as of February 26 including 101 PUIs who are in different medical facilities and 510 who have recovered and have been discharged.
The confirmed COVID-19 cases remained at three — two discharged and one fatality.
The Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong said only one Filipino remained in quarantine.
Citing reports from the Hong Kong Health Ministry, the consulate said two other Filipinos were released after the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.
“Only one Filipino remained in quarantine as of today. She is healthy and asymptomatic and expected to be released on February 28,” the consulate said.
Seven Filipinos were originally placed under quarantine. Four have been released.
The consulate also said the 32-year old Filipina who earlier tested positive for the virus is also expected to be released this week after subsequent laboratory tests showed her negative for COVID-19.
“Hong Kong’s lone Filipino COVID-19 patient informed the consulate today that her test results remain negative and she expects to be released this week,” the consulate added.
There are about 238,000 Filipinos living and working in the former British colony. – With Ashzel Hachero and Jocelyn Montemayor