Senate hearing on virus turns to finger-pointing

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    SENATORS yesterday scored the Department of Health for its apparent failure to track down all airline passengers who have had “close contact” with the Chinese couple who arrived last month and later tested positive for the novel coronavirus after visiting Cebu and Dumaguete City.

    In a hearing conducted yesterday by the Senate health and demography committee, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the DOH has so far traced only 17 percent or 56 of the 331 total airline passengers that needed to be traced.

    Duque explained that “contact tracing is not easy to do,” adding the information given by the airlines was inadequate. He said the airlines submitted their flight manifests but these lacked pertinent details.

    Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific had earlier issued statements saying they were cooperating with the health department’s Bureau of Quarantine and have provided the necessary details to enable the DOH to trace the passengers.

    The Chinese couple – a 38-year-old woman and a 44-year-old man from Wuhan – arrived via Hong Kong last Jan. 21 and took a Cebu Pacific flight to Cebu then also flew via Cebu Pacific to Dumaguete City. Days later, they took a Philippine Airlines flight to Manila and were admitted to San Lazaro Hospital.

    The man died last Feb. 1, the first coronavirus death reported outside of China.

    Duque said they have coordinated with the Chinese Embassy for the cremation of the body, adding the cremation was done yesterday.

    After Sen. Nancy Binay asked whether the airline passengers contacted by the DOH have been quarantined, finger pointing began.

    “Airlines are not sharing contact details of the passengers, they are invoking confidentiality. There is a manifest, but there are no contact details,” Duque said.

    But Carmelo Arcilla, Civil Aeronautics Board director, said airlines do not withhold such information.

    Duque countered: “I am told they (airlines) are invoking the Data Privacy Act. We cannot understand. That is now being investigated.”

    Eddie Monreal, Manila International Airport Authority chief, said he does not see any reason why airlines would withhold passenger information specially now that there is a health concern.

    Ronnie Ordoyo, a PAL representative, said they have given the passenger list to the DOH’s Epidemiology Bureau “as required” and it should be the Bureau of Quarantine that should make follow-up moves.

    “As of the moment we were able to contact 74 passengers out or 132, of which about 21 who were closely seated (with the couple) were advised; we reached out to passengers, we told them to contact DOH. The airline is in full support,” Ordoyo said.

    Transportation Sec. Arthur Tugade said the DOH should have coordinated with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines and the Civil Aeronautics Board, which exercise powers over airlines, so the DOH can have the full contact details of the passengers. CAAP and CAB are agencies under the DOTr.

    “We must agree now that all contact tracing must come from CAAP or CAB…we have a situation of failure to coordinate,” Tugade said.

    Sen. Francis Pangilinan said this is not a failure of coordination, but rather a “failure of leadership of the DOH.”

    Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin said that as a standard procedure during a health crisis, all government agencies must surrender to the DOH, the lead agency in the task force tackling the virus. He said it should be the Bureau of Immigration that should be keeping information on passengers.

    Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the different government agencies seemed to have overlooked the principle of unity of command.

    “I thought this is a health issue and the DOH should be the first line of defense and should be designated as the office of primary responsibility. You shouldn’t be blaming other people because this is a health issue,” Lacson said.

    “And it’s wrong to point to the BI (Bureau of Immigration) and CAAP, it should be the initiative of the DOH. What we have here, as Sen. Pangilinan mentioned earlier, is a failure of leadership… The DOH should be in charge, on top of the situation. Not the CAAP, BI, DOTr, but the DOH,” Lacson added.

    Sen. Joel Villanueva said airlines cannot invoke the Data Privacy Act in times like these.
    Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa asked Duque to speed up contact tracing to allay public fears of being infected. He said the DOH can ask the help of the PNP in locating the other passengers.

    Trade and Industry Sec. Ramon Lopez said the shortage in the supply of face masks in the country can be soon addressed.

    “The problem is supply, it is out of stock simply because of the surge in demand, panic buying, normal inventory not that high…Recent feedback I got was even local suppliers ay hirap kumuha (have a hard time getting masks) because other countries also need masks,” Lopez said, adding they have contacted a manufacturer in Bataan that he said committed to address the shortage of face masks.

    “Nag-donate na sila sa Taal Volcano victims ng 500,000 masks. They committed to supply 100,000 masks to be delivered today (Tuesday) and the priority is the DOH for health workers. They also committed to produce 400,000 masks a week so that we tend to add on the local supply,” Lopez said.

    Sen. Imee Marcos recommended that all coming concerts, especially during this Valentine’s season, should be cancelled.

    Education Secretary Leonor Briones said they have temporary cancelled all sports meet in a bid to prevent the spread of the dreaded virus.

    Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenza said the DOH can use a military facility in Fort Magsaysay as quarantine site for returning OFWs.