Twenty-four patients who have traveled to Wuhan, China, are being closely monitored by the Department of Health as the death toll from the outbreak in China rose to 106 and the number of infected reached more than 4,000.
Most of the 24 patients are Chinese nationals who were found in Metro Manila, Western Visayas, Central Visayas, Mimaropa, Eastern Visayan and Nothern Mindanao.
The DOH is awaiting the results of the screening and confirmation tests from the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine and Australia’s Victorian Infectious Disease Reference Laboratory.
In a press briefing, Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo said there were no Filipinos among the 24 patients, and most of them were Chinese nationals.
Earlier, the DOH discharged three patients, including a five-year-old Chinese boy, after their tests yielded negative results for the new virus.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said 13 samples have been sent to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in Muntinlupa for screening, which is an initial test to verify if the samples are positive for non-specific pancoronavirus assay.
Those that test positive are then sent to the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory in Australia to identify the specific coronavirus strain.
Duque and the World Health Organization say the Philippines still remains free from the 2019 nCoV, with no confirmed cases.
He said his department covened the first meeting of an interagency task force on emerging infections diseases, with representatives from the Foreign Affairs, Interior and Local Government, Justice, Labor and Employment, Tourism, Transportation and Information and Communications Technology departments.
Also among those present at the meeting were representatives from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Civil Aviation Authority, and Civil Aviation Board, Philippine Coast Guard and WHO officials.
WHO has classified the risk level for the spread of the 2019-nCoV as very high in China, and high at the regional and global levels.
During the Inter-Agency Committee meeting, members resolved and agreed to ensure support for Filipinos in China, as well as comprehensive transport and quarantine plans for Filipinos from Hubei province who wish to return to the Philippines.
The committee also agreed on proposing temporary restrictions on the issuance of visas for travelers from Hubei Province, and issuing advisories temporarily discouraging non-essential travel to China.
The health chief warned the public against believing random messages circulating online and through text about supposed cases of 2019-nCoV in the Philippines.
In the Senate, Senator Francis Pangilinan said the spread of the coronavirus and the increasing number of deaths due to it should prompt Philippine health and immigration authorities to preemptively ban visitors from Wuhan, if not from the most affected provinces of China.
While the Philippine health authorities have not confirmed a case of the rapidly-mutating deadly disease, he stressed that it is best for them to be more proactive especially since the country may not be able to contain a full-blown epidemic given the recent eruption of Taal Volcano.
He also said that a total 1,626,309 tourists from China visited the country from January to November 2019.
“That’s over 4,800 Chinese tourists every day,” Pangilinan said.
Bureau of Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente has ordered that the visa upon arrival facility be suspended following concerns on the spread of the novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV.
“The Civil Aeronautics Board has already suspended direct flights from Wuhan province,” said Morente. “We are now temporarily suspending the issuance of VUA for Chinese nationals to slow down the influx of group tours,” he added.
The VUA facility, said Morente, is often used by Chinese tour groups in visiting the Philippines.
A similar move was done by Taiwan immigration authorities.
However, Morente said there is no order barring Chinese nationals from entering the country. “We have not received any directive imposing policy changes on Chinese nationals,” said Morente.
“But we are taking this proactive measure to slow down travel, and possibly help prevent the entry of the 2019-nCov,” he said.
An official of the Department of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday said Filipinos from Hubei province, China can fly back home voluntarily for as long as they agree to place themselves under quarantine following the virus scare arising from the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Brigido Dulay said Duque, as chairman of the inter-agency task force, came out with the decision that any Filipino who wants to come home will be allowed to come back, “except that they will be placed under quarantine for 14 days, also for their own protection as well as the protection of their families also.”
“In that respect, they are all free to go, we are now asking our missions to now collate the number of Filipinos, as well as the names of those who would like to come home under that condition,” Dulay said.
The official also said that the DFA will help in bringing the Filipinos home, if there is a need to repatriate them.
The Department of Justice on Tuesday said the Bureau of Immigration personnel conducting inspection of ships follow health security protocols to protect themselves from being infected by the novel coronavirus (2019-nCOV).
Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said the protocols are strictly followed by those conducting inspections onboard cruise ships and other foreign vessels that arrive in Philippine ports.
Perete, who has administrative supervision over the BI, made the assurance after the Philippine Coast Guard reported that two ships from China, the World Dram Cruise Ship and cargo ship m/v Ligulao, arrived at Pier 15, South Harbor, Port Area, Manila City.
The DOJ official said when there are foreign vessels docking in the country, they make sure that their Immigration personnel are protected from being infected with the coronavirus .
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives on Tuesday asked Duque to appear at a plenary session Wednesday to outline the government’s response to a possible coronavirus outbreak here.
With 239 lawmakers in attendance, the House, in plenary session presided by Deputy Speaker Mujiv Hataman, unanimously adopted the motion of Majority Leader Martin Romualdez that Duque is invited to attend Wednesday’s plenary session as guest for its Question Hour.
Romualdez moved for the adoption of the Question Hour period after Rep. Angelina Tan, chairman of the House committee on health, delivered a privilege speech raising questions on the government’s preparedness in dealing with the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak that now affects several countries.
Tan, in her speech, said legislators need to hear from Duque about the country’s preparedness to handle the global threat.
The Question Hour is a period where lawmakers ask members of the Executive Department, particularly Cabinet secretaries, and hold them accountable for their acts and the operation of the government.
Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte, meanwhile, called on local hospitals to intensify surveillance and support efforts on reporting possible coronavirus cases.
“Despite the absence of a confirmed case of nCoV, we still cannot be complacent and be relaxed,” she said.
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