BY Ashzel Hachero and Gerard Naval
FOREIGN Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. yesterday said the nearly 500 Filipino crew and passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship originally set to be repatriated to the country on Sunday will instead be brought home on Tuesday, Feb. 25.
The repatriation was deferred to allow Japanese health authorities to complete laboratory tests on the remaining passengers on the ship quarantined off the coast of Yokohama. It will be recalled that Japanese authorities apologized after 23 passengers were allowed to disembark and leave without being properly tested.
“This may be why Japan offered to host the Filipino crew before their repatriation for testing. Completed but not all results are in,” Locsin said.
“Those found positive have been hospitalized. We accepted with deep gratitude. Thank you, Japan. So far, Feb. 25 is repatriation day,” he added.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the delayed repatriation effort is out of their hands.
“Our repatriation plan has already been completed and approved. It is already up for implementation. But what happened is not in our control,” Duque said in a television interview.
A total of 49 Filipinos aboard the ship have tested positive for the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), which has killed more than 2,000 in mainland China, where it originated.
Meanwhile, a Filipino in Singapore has tested positive for the virus, the first confirmed case involving a Filipino in the city state.
The DFA said the Filipino is in isolation in Singapore’s National Center for Infectious Diseases.
The cruise ship has the biggest number of infection outside of mainland China with more than 600 confirmed cases out of 3,700 passengers and crew members.
The Department of Health earlier said the Filipinos who will be repatriated will undergo 14 more days of quarantine at the New Clark City in Capas, Tarlac, the same facility where more than 40 Filipinos from Wuhan City, China were quarantined.
The Department of Foreign Affairs on Sunday said they are now securing clearances and permits for the disembarkation of Filipinos aboard the vessel.
“Repatriation preparations, including securing clearances and permits for the disembarkation, land transfer, as well as the arrangement of the chartered flights are being done,” the DFA said.
The DFA said coordination is also being done with the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare as well as the Japanese Self Defense Forces for the land transfer from Yokohama port to Haneda airport where the chartered flight will take off.
Duque said it is better to experience delays than to risk public health.
“Of course, we want to bring them home. But we don’t want to take the risk of them not getting tested. It would be more problematic if we push it through despite the threat,” said Duque.
Despite being released from quarantine at the Athletes Village in New Clark City, Tarlac, the 49 individuals will continue to be monitored by the DOH.
Health Assistant Secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said they want to remain updated on the health conditions of the 30 Filipinos from Wuhan, China, as well as the five DOH medical team members, five DFA response team members, six plane crew, and three ground personnel who helped in bringing them home.
“We will still monitor them. We will still follow up on them. In the event that they experience any symptoms, we want to know,” Vergeire said, adding this is part of precautionary measures considering reports from other countries of individuals having been cleared only to turn out positive later.
“We are going to that err on the side of caution. This is why we still want to follow up on them even after their completion of the quarantine period,” said Vergeire.
The World Health Organization (WHO) did not rule out the possibility of patients under investigation (PUIs) who have tested negative to turn positive later on.
WHO Representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe said the possibility of re-infection cannot be ascertained.
“We have not yet seen evidence of re-infection and the severity of the re-infection. That is something that we are still working on,” Abeyasinghe said.
On Saturday, all 49 were given the green light to return home after being quarantined for 14 days. They were repatriated by the Philippine government last Feb. 9 from Wuhan, China, the acknowledged epicenter of the virus.
“Through everyone’s cooperation, we have zero infections and zero mortality,” Duque.
During the send-off ceremony, all the 49 received certifications of quarantine completion from the DOH as well as financial assistance from DFA, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, and Department of Social Welfare and Development.
The DOH also reported that there are now 608 PUIs nationwide as of Feb. 23, with 131 still isolated in different medical facilities and 474 having been discharged.
The confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country remained at three, including two that have been discharged and one death.