Cabinet members on Tuesday pointed fingers at each other over lapses in contact tracing, after it was learned that fewer than 60 of the 331 airline passengers who had contact with two carriers of the deadly novel coronavirus
(nCoV) have been reached by health officials so far—even as the authorities were monitoring a possible third case.
“Yes, there is [a possible third case], but we will give the report tomorrow because we will have a Cabinet meeting [first],” Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said on the sidelines of a Senate hearing on the nCoV outbreak.
Asked if health officials responsible for the “slow” tracing will be held accountable, Duque said: “Heads will roll. Somebody’s head is going to roll.”
Duque told lawmakers that 331 passengers had contact with the first fatality
reported in the Philippines and his girlfriend, a 38-year-old Chinese woman who was the first confirmed nCoV case
in the country.
The couple traveled from Wuhan via Hong Kong, and from there took a Cebu Pacific flight to Cebu, then later another Cebu Pacific flight to Dumaguete. Days later, they a took Philippine Airlines flight to Manila.
They were both admitted and isolated at the San Lazaro Hospital in Sta. Cruz, Manila upon arrival. The man tested positive for the new virus on Feb. 1.
During the hearing on the coronavirus conducted by the committee on health and demography, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade blamed Duque for failure of communication and coordination, saying this resulted in slow contact tracing.
Senators Francis Pangilinan and Panfilo Lacson accused Duque of a “failure of leadership.”
Under questioning by Senator Nancy Binay, Duque admitted that “roughly a fifth” or about 17 percent of the 331 co-passengers of the confirmed coronavirus cases on the Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific flights have been contacted.
He told the Senate panel that his subordinates failed to inform him beforehand that only 17 percent of passengers had been contacted.
He acknowledged this was a problem of the lack of transparency on the part of his people.
He said he did not know all the operational details and that to attend to these would make him lose sight of “the bigger picture.”
“But I will have this investigated,” Duque said.
He also bewailed the failure of airline companies to share contact details of the passengers, saying they were invoking confidentiality.
But Manila International Airport Authority General Manager Ed Monreal said he could see no reason the airlines would withhold that information.
Philippine Airlines spokesperson Cielo Villaluna added that the flag carrier did in fact share the passengers’ contact details.
“We shared it to enable DOH to carry out the callouts and on top of that, PAL carried out callouts,” Villaluna said.
Cebu Pacific Air spokesperson Charo Logarta-Lagamon said they have been in close coordination with the DOH, the Bureau of Quarantine and other government agencies to help manage the risk of contamination from the nCoV and have been working with the government from the beginning.
She said Cebu Pacific, to has already provided a list of passengers aboard both flights to the Department of Health.
“We have also contacted the passengers aboard the flights taken by nCoV-positive patients and updated them on those we have been able to speak with. As an additional measure, Cebu Pacific opened a hotline to enable passengers aboard the specific flights to call the airline.”
In underscoring a glaring picture of failure to communicate, Tugade insisted it should have been the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines and the Civil Aeronautics Board who should do contact tracing.
Tugade said the airline companies would be more likely to respond to the CAAP or the CAB, since they have jurisdiction and power over them to “force compliance.”
Pangilinan chastised Duque for pointing fingers at his subordinates.
“I think it’s not just a failure of communication, but also a failure of leadership on the part of the Health department,” Pangilinan said.
Senator Ronald dela Rosa added that Duque should have tapped the police to help trace the passengers.
He said they would have been “apprehended” in two to three days.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the contact tracing should be done by the Bureau of Immigration and the CAB.
“Nobody can enter the country without filling up the immigration form. That form is in the custody of the BI and it should be with you guys,” he said.
On Monday night, President Rodrigo Duterte said Filipinos should not be “hysterical” about the threat posed by the nCoV, saying the government was not “just sitting down.”
In an evening press briefing, the President also said the government would not hide any information about the nCoV.
“If it says you’re going to die tomorrow because of this nCoV, it’s a contagion all over, we will tell you that. If it would cost you lives, we will not hide that,” Duterte said.
“Everything is well in the country. There’s nothing really to be extra-scared of that coronavirus thing,” he added.
Duterte also said the government is purchasing more face masks following the reported shortage due to a surge in demand over the virus scare.
He also called on the public to avoid discriminatory behavior against Chinese citizens who were blamed for the spread of the virus. The President said China has been kind to the Philippines and the country should do the same.
“Stop this xenophobia thing. They are blaming the Chinese [that thevirus] came from China. It can always incubate in some other places but that is not the fault of anybody. Not of the Chinese, not of the Filipinos, not of anyone,” Duterte said.
“We are a community of nations. We cooperate. China has been kind to us. We can only also show the same favor to them,” he added.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Christopher Go said the President still trusts Duque but said he should speed up the contact tracing.
He also assured the public that the government has been on top of the situation and is committed to assist Filipinos mitigate the impact of the new coronavirus.
As this developed, the number of patients under investigation for the novel coronavirus in the country reached 105 as of yesterday.
The DOH website showed that of this number, 90 are still confined in hospitals while 12 have been discharged after testing negative for the virus.
The count includes the two fatalities earlier reported—the 29-year-old Chinese man from Yunnan who died Jan. 29 due to pneumonia but tested negative for the nCoV, and the 44-year-old Chinese man from Wuhan who succumbed to severe pneumonia caused by nCoV.
Militant lawmakers Bayan Muna party-list Reps. Carlos Zarate and Ferdinand Gaite slammed the administration’s “apparent lackadaisical approach and wrong priorities” in immediately addressing the nCoV crisis.
Zarate and Gaite, Makabayan lawmakers, said the slow government response “will only make the country and our people even more vulnerable to the dreaded virus.”
With the second nCOV case, and, the first death due to nCoV outside of China recorded in the Philippines, the slow response of the Duterte administration to this health emergency cannot simply be glossed over, Zarate said.
“The preemptive ban on flights coming from affected areas, particularly in China, was made only after the death of the victim. We have also received reports that surgical masks along with N95 masks are now out of stock or their prices have gone through the roof. A surgical mask now costs P38 in a big pharmacy in Commonwealth when it should be just P1-P5 per piece,” he said.
“We also received reports that the male victim who died and his companion had been in the country for quite sometime, as part of a group tour. They stayed in a hotel in Manila prior to being hospitalized for suspicion of being nCoV infected,” Zarate said.
Gaite also scored the “belated decision of President Duterte to finally implement a temporary travel ban
on all tourists coming from mainland China and its special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau amid the threat of the novel coronavirus.”
In related developments:
* Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Monday said the National Bureau of Investigation is willing to mobilize its agents nationwide, to help track down all the airline passengers who had come in contact with the two confirmed nCoV cases.
* Privacy Commissioner Raymund Enriquez Liboro said that while data privacy is a right, it is not an absolute right and subject to the requirements of public order and safety. He said the release of the passenger manifest, in this case, would be allowed under the Data Privacy Act of 2012.
* The Department of Justice has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct an investigation and case build-up on the spread of misinformation and fake news about the novel coronavirus.
* The Department of Education on Tuesday announced the postponement of the multi-sport Palarong Pambansa and other regional events due to the nCoV threat.
* Fastfood giant Jollibee Foods Corp. said it closed down 14 stores in China following the nCoV outbreak. Jollibee in a disclosure to the stock exchange said the 14 stores it has closed down are all Yonghe King restaurants and are all located in Hubei province where Wuhan, the epicenter of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
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