DOH says it will 'advocate' frontliners' plea for Metro Manila 'time-out'

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
DOH says it will 'advocate' frontliners' plea for Metro Manila 'time-out'
This May 9, 2020 photo shows a healthcare worker in Taguig City.
The STAR / Walter Bollozos

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Health backs the resounding call for a time-out for health workers, it said in a statement issued Sunday morning. 

Just the day before, medical professionals in an open letter to the government's coronavirus task force called for a renewed enhanced community quarantine to be hoisted over the National Capital Region, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon in order for the government to recalibrate its current strategies in dealing with the pandemic.

"Dear President Duterte, healthcare workers are united in sounding off a distress signal to the nation that our healthcare system has been overwhelmed,” the letter penned by Philippine Medical Association President Jose Santiago read. 

In its response issued addressed to the health sector posted Sunday morning, the health department acknowledged: "the time-out you have asked for will buy us the time to refine and revisit our strategies to meet the evolving nature of this global pandemic."

"In our dialogue earlier with the medical community, we have committed to proactively leading the implementation of effective localized lockdowns [and] revisiting our strategy with the help of the broad range of stakeholders and develop an updated one within seven days," the department said.

It also said that it would "advocate for the call for a time-out for the National Capital Region" in its meetings with the coronavirus task force, though what medical professionals asked for was a "time-out" ECQ over Mega Manila, which would include regions and provinces near the capital.

Among its "proposed ways forward" was the creation of a rapid response team of medical workers to prevent the capital's health system from being overrun. The department appealed to provincial health workers and returning OFWs in the medical field along with universities and medical societies to assist them in hiring personnel for the initiative.

"We will provide a roadmap and technical assistance to ensure that [local governments] put in place effective contact tracing operations," the department also said, reiterating the need for the government to hire more contact tracers, particularly for industries it has observed case clustering in such as construction and technoparks. 

Lawmakers back calls 

Senators also supported the demands from the healthcare community. Sen. Sonny Angara called it "a very serious request which the government should take very seriously in plotting out the next steps."

Sen. Ping Lacson said in response: "The request of health workers to place Mega Manila under ECQ for at least two weeks is a valid request that Malacañang should seriously consider. Putting human lives above all considerations is a no-brainer, given the choice."

"Having said that, some adjustments can be made in the distribution of government subsidy to the most basic necessities of those who need it the most. What is important is to prevent an obvious pattern of upsurge in the daily coronavirus infection," he said.

For her part, Sen. Nancy Binay called on the Palace to act on the demands of health workers in a tweet. 

'Doctored data' 

"On the other hand, this underscores the significance of data management by concerned government agencies, which after more than four months should have already been in place and readily implementable," Lacson added. 

This comes after the Department of Health implemented a "mass recovery" adjustment in its data recording, where all mild and asymptomatic cases were re-tagged as recoveries.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan slammed the department's new classification in a statement of his own, saying: "More people will get sick when the sick are called 'recovered' even if they are not tested. Is that what the government wants to happen? Vice President Leni is right, the first step to solve COVID-19 is correct and complete information as soon as possible. We need accurate and complete data as soon as possible."

For his part, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto called on the DOH to provide the public a clearer explanation of its methodology in tabulating data on the virus along with a breakdown of cases per town and also suggested that academics could conduct a third-party of the health department's data to verify its efficacy. 

"Truth is as important as testing, tracing and treatment in fighting the pandemic. Reality cannot be altered by changing the formula just to arrive at a certain conclusion. How many times have we been told that people died because one patient lied? The same honesty is demanded of government because one that can't handle the truth can cause mass casualties," he said. 

'A militarist handling' 

The Coalition for People's Right to Health in a separate statement also warned that another enhanced community quarantine would do little to help if the government did not take time to re-examine its strategies in preventing cases at the community level. 

"The government reneged on and neglected the people's welfare with the social amelioration program (SAP) during the first ECQ; the second tranche is still incomplete in its distribution. Moreover, a militarist handling instead of a medical approach to the pandemic wreaks fear among the people and proliferates human rights violations—while doing little, if not nothing, to curb the number of cases and spread of disease," the coalition's statement read. 

CPRH also reiterated its call for the following:

  1. Mass hiring of health workers with regular positions and increased/adequate compensation and benefits
  2. Provision of complete, appropriate and high quality PPEs
  3. Free and regular rtPCR testing (every 2 weeks) for health workers
  4. 48-hour duty in a week followed by 14-days quarantine, free hospitalization when sick, support for essential needs during quarantine, and P100,000 compensation for all COVID-19 positive health workers
  5. Free mass testing for contacts and other vulnerable populations, adequate quarantine facilities
  6. Provision of free masks for the people and free health care and medicine in public hospitals
  7. Development and increase in numbers of testing centers
  8. Increase vital, life-saving supplies and equipment such as ventilators in all public hospitalsSystematization and pro-active coordination of DOH to hospitals
  9. Provision of community-based health care that is promotive, preventive, and comprehensive in all communities
  10. Sustained and comprehensive socio-economic assistance to displaced workers and other vulnerable populations
  11. Change in the leadership of government positions calling the shots in the pandemic response

The health department posted its biggest single-day leap on Friday and again on Saturday, the 137th day since ECQ was first implemented in March, with 4,963 new infections. 

General community quarantine over Metro Manila was extended on Friday until August 15. 

Malacañang has said that Duterte has directed the coronavirus task force to act on the medical workers' statements. 

As it stands, the Philippines is already under the world's longest quarantine, while the national caseload stands at 98,232 patients. — with reports from Ratziel San Juan 

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