HEALTH officials yesterday welcomed the move by the Chinese government to lock down Wuhan but were resigned to the possibility that the novel coronavirus may eventually reach the Philippines.
“I think the WHO (World Health Organization) position right now is that the virus is really going to spread,” Department of Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo said.
“It has already gone to several countries so that idea of international spread is no longer theoretical. We have already documented cases in Thailand, Korea, Japan, US. And we have a case waiting for confirmation here in our country,” he added, referring to a 5-year-old Chinese boy with a travel history to Wuhan who arrived last Jan. 21 and has been admitted to a Cebu City hospital after manifesting symptoms of the virus.
The thing to do now, Domingo said, is to intensify the surveillance system, especially in airports and other ports of entry, to identify possible carriers of the virus that has already killed 17 and infected nearly 600, leaving health authorities around the world scrambling to prevent a global pandemic.
Domingo said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III has ordered the revival of the Health Declaration Checklist that will be distributed to all arriving passengers at all ports.
“We will ask them to answer and submit the Health Declaration Cards to be given by our quarantine personnel in the airports,” said Domingo.
The checklist asks arriving passengers about their travel histories, their personal data, health assessment, and other pertinent information.
“The strategy now of the WHO is really to make sure that when it (virus) does spread and when it happens, we’re able to isolate and contain the cases and manage them well,” he said.
Domingo said such a strategy is feasible since the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is showing a lower case fatality rate and is less contagious than Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-related Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related Coronavirus (SARS-CoV).
“So far, we believe that it is less deadly and less contagious than two other types of coronavirus, which are MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV,” he explained.
Domingo said result of the samples from the Chinese boy sent to Australia for testing may be known by today, Friday, or Saturday. The boy had tested positive for a non-specific pancoronavirus assay by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).
Domingo said the boy is feeling well and has shown no more symptoms of the virus, except for mild cough. But he won’t be discharged from the hospital until he is cleared from the novel coronavirus.
“We are not discharging the child because, according to our protocol, if you are suspected of having this new coronavirus, we only discharge the patient after testing negative,” said Domingo.
As to the four family members of Hong Kong’s first suspected case of the 2019-nCoV that arrived in Manila on Wednesday, Domingo said they have already made contact with the family and have found no symptoms of the virus.
“They are not sick. So far, there is no need to test, no need to admit them. But we are still closely monitoring them,” said Domingo.
ADDITIONAL PROTECTION NEEDED
The Associated Labor Unions (ALU) yesterday called for additional protection for workers in ports and cabin crew amid the threat posed by the novel coronavirus.
In a statement, ALU Vice President Gerard Seno said they are asking government and the airline industry to ensure that all safety and health protection protocols are in place for the protection of cabin crew, check-in counter personnel, immigration, airport security, and maintenance employees.
“These are extraordinary times for these types of workers. That is why there is a need for an enhanced, adaptive, and dynamic protection by government and airline industry players because these workers are now the country’s first line of defense against the spread of transmittable coronavirus,” Seno said.
Earlier, reports came out that a 24-year-old flight attendant submitted herself to “self quarantine” at the Aklan Provincial Hospital after being afflicted with cough. The flight attendant had a reported history of travel to Wuhan. She has been discharged from the hospital after being confined overnight.
Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade directed airport and seaport personnel to implement necessary safety measures and urged vigilance to prevent the entry of the virus to the country.
Manila International Airport Authority General Manager Ed Monreal said they are coordinating with the Bureau of Quarantine in implementing safety protocols.
Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines Director General Jim Sydiongco said they are coordinating with the DOH and the Bureau of Quarantine to secure airports.
He added they are closely monitoring arriving passengers, especially at the Kalibo International Airport, which has direct flights from Wuhan, China. Sydiongco added that Royal Air, one of the airlines that has direct flights between Kalibo and Wuhan, has manifested its intention to suspend its flights to the city until the spread of the virus is contained.
CAAP has reactivated its communicable disease preparedness procedures in all its airports, especially in international gateways such as Puerto Princesa, General Santos, Zamboanga, Davao, Kalibo, Laoag, and Iloilo.
The Philippine Coast Guard has advised all medical units in its 13 coast guard sub-districts to be on high alert to avoid the possible entry of the virus.
Sen. Francis Tolentino, Senate local government committee chair, has called for the creation of the Office of the Surgeon General that will serve as the national spokesperson on all matters relating to public health in the Philippines in the wake of the sudden spike of new diseases in the country.
“The recent influx of diseases, such as the still unidentified strain of coronavirus originating from Wuhan, China, necessitates the need for a proactive government body which focuses on a reliable communication system for disease prevention and control,” said Tolentino, who recently filed Senate Bill No. 1288.
Under the proposed measure, the Office of the Surgeon General, which will be an attached agency of the DOH, will regularly publish health bulletins and reports on critical public health issues and on the health and fitness of the general public. – With Ashzel Hachero, Rod Lagusad, Myla Iglesias, and Raymond Africa