President Rodrigo Duterte fended off mounting calls for Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to resign over his mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis and said he took full responsibility for the purchase of overpriced medical supplies used in the fight against the pandemic.
In a meeting with top government officials late Monday night, Duterte said he asked Duque to speed up the purchase of supplies during the early days of the pandemic.
“I would listen to Secretary Duque. But I gave him the instruction and I admit it in public now… I told him, ‘Do everything you can’. And he said ‘there’s so many proposition’. ‘I do not care. If it’s not cheap, if it is expensive, go—just go ahead and do something about it,” he said.
Duterte said he had to make a decision, rather than stay “boxed in a corner.”
READ: Mr. Duque, please resign
“I just want my fellow Filipinos to know I take full responsibility, that my order was to act quickly,” he added.
Duterte recalled how he previously said that it did not matter to him how the funds for the supplies would be sourced.
“I remember saying it. I do not care whether you go and steal, borrow or kill a person to get what—(do) what needs to be done,” he said.
Earlier, Senator Panfilo Lacson questioned the purchase of supplies including personal protective equipment (PPE) and swabbing system used in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests since they were more expensive than the ones bought by the private sector.
On Monday, Duterte ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to investigate the overpricing of COVID-19 testing kits by a local supplier “very carefully.”
He also warned businessmen against hoarding especially during the prevailing pandemic.
He said the national government would "act accordingly" and tackle the issue in a legal manner.
Earlier, former Health Secretary now Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin called on Duterte to order an investigation of a ”very enterprising” couple for being linked to the overpricing of COVID-19 testing kits and machines.
READ: Drug price control to cost government P28B
Garin claimed that the couple has been operating to make it difficult for the private sector to access testing equipment and supplies unless they agree to purchase overpriced testing materials from them.
She added that the couple has been allegedly hoarding testing kits and had “exclusive distributorship” privilege.
Duque, in the meeting with Duterte, said he did not personally know the couple amid allegations that he centralized all the purchases of test kits and machines through the Omnibus Corporation.
The couple was later identified as Van William and Emily Co.
Budget Undersecretary Lloyd Lao said the Cos owns Omnibus Corp., distributor of Sansure Biotech.
However, he said Omnibus Corp. did not win the bidding because they were selling equipment and supplies at a higher price.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said profiteering can be penalized under the Price Act and Bayanihan Law.
During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Lacson said the Department of Health (DOH) procured 10 nucleic acid extractor machines at P4 million each, which is more than double the price of the same machines bought by Project Ark, a private sector pushing rapid antibody testing kits, which were priced at P1.75 million.
He also pointed out that the DOH bought a swabbing system also at twice the common price.
Senate health committee chairman Senator Christopher Go on Tuesday vowed to conduct an investigation on the alleged overpricing of medical supplies, equipment, and packages, including COVID-19 test kits, reportedly purchased by the government, or being sold by abusive entrepreneurs.
“We should not allow corruption and abusive business practices to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of fellow Filipinos,” he said.
Several senators called for Duque to resign because of his numerous blunders in handling the COVID-19 crisis.
However, the President rejected the call to fire Duque and even gave him advice on how to handle critics.
“You know don’t be too touchy on issues because always there will be pros and cons,” he told Duque..
He said everyone’s opinion deserved to be heard because it was part of a democracy.
Duterte said he understood Duque’s situation, but told him to stand by his statements even if they were unpopular.
He said it was all right to admit mistakes, especially if they were done without malice.
“Maybe you should adopt that kind of attitude. So be it. If I committed the wrong, as long as there is no malice there,” he said.
Before giving his advice, Duterte asked Duque to explain which wave of infection the country was experiencing, after the top Health official drew fire for saying the country was already in the second wave of infections.
READ: DOH needs P67.6 billion more to fight pandemic as cases near 13,000
"Are we on the second, third, fourth, or fifth wave? O no wave at all?" Duterte asked.
Duque told Duterte that the country is still on "the first major wave of sustained community transmission.”
He explained that his earlier pronouncement about the country being on the second wave was based on an article that was published by epidemiologist Dr. John Wong of EpiMetrics.
"Dr. John Wong sits as one of the expert advisers of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Disease. And to him, as an epidemiologist, a top epidemiologist, he considers the three first cases in the Philippines, although imported, would represent a minor wave. Then we had a lull of about a month, the whole of February. And then March we started to have reported cases," he said.
On Tuesday, hospitals stopped using the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients due to advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) following a study that showed it increased the likelihood of death.
“We follow WHO guidelines on this because this is the WHO solidarity Trial,” said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.
She said her office got a letter from the proponent of the study on the use of the off-label drug, saying that they are pulling out (the drug) and they are stopping from giving hydroxychloroquine to their patients because of WHO’s advice.
Vergeire said they cannot release yet the results of the Philippines' study since it is still in the clinical trial phase.
Hydroxychloroquine was among the four drugs being studied by at least 20 hospitals in the country as treatment for the new coronavirus disease.
The government reported 350 new confirmed COVID-19 cases nationwide Tuesday, which brought to 14,669 the total number of infections.
Thirteen deaths were reported, bringing total fatalities to 886, while 89 patients recovered, bringing total recoveries to 3,412.
On Monday, WHO announced that it was temporarily suspending the use of hydroxychloroquine in its multi-country Solidarity Trial.
The drug, originally made to treat malaria, is one of the drugs and drug combinations being studied by various countries as possible cure for COVID-19.
While it was initially said to be promising, a study published in The Lancet indicated that the drug may put patients at risk of dying.
The WHO emphasized that the other arms of the solidarity trial will proceed. The other drugs included in the trial are remdesivir, ritonavir-lopinavir, and ritonavir-lopinavir with interferon beta.
Vergerei earlier said these off-label drugs are used to treat other diseases, but will be tested by hospitals and doctors on patients in the solidarity trial to see if they can help against the coronavirus disease.
Meanwhile, Vergerei admitted that the Philippines is short of about 94,000 COVID-19 contact tracers to achieve the ideal ratio of one contact tracer per 800 people.
“They have set this benchmark when you have one contact person per 800 persons in the country. So if we are going to look at that and considering what we have for now as to the number of contact tracers, we are short of about 94,000,” she said.
She said the government is now trying to address the lack of contact tracers through emergency hiring.
The DOH official earlier said the Philippines has about 38,000 contact tracers. But the government’s economic team has proposed to hire 136,000 contact tracers.
Meanwhile, Senator Go said the COVID-19 outbreak exposed the perennial gaps in the country’s health care system.
“Let us all learn from this experience and better prepare ourselves for any health emergency that may come,” he said.
“First, we aim to capacitate our government hospitals, especially in the provinces. The ratio of general hospital beds to the population was one is to 1,142, exceeding the ideal ratio of one is to 1,000,” Go said.
In one study, he related, the average bed occupancy rate of DOH hospitals reached 136 percent, above the benchmark range of 85 percent. In 2018, almost 65 percent or 284 out of 437 public hospitals were overcrowded. This includes 51 or 73 percent of DOH hospitals. This situation results in longer waiting times for patients and delays in their treatment.
Furthermore, he noted that DOH hospitals are constrained by the lack of adequate staffing, maintenance, and operating resources to fully provide the quality of health care that their patients deserve.
Under current regulations, a DOH hospital can only increase its bed capacity and improve its service capability through legislation.
“To expedite the process for improving the capacity and capability of hospitals that are under the jurisdiction of the DOH, we seek to authorize the DOH to increase the bed capacity and service capability of its retained hospitals,” Go said.
“Aside from improving our hospital bed capacities, we also aim to address the lack of quarantine facilities.”
Senator Risa Hontiveros said that to win the fight against COVID-19, efforts to flatten the curve of new cases should be accompanied by measures to raise the line of the health system’s capacity.
She pushed for the augmentation of the country’s health care system as part of preparations for the possible resurgence of COVID-19 infections and for future public health emergencies.
During the same hearing, Hontiveros explained that raising the line means improving health care capacity by providing quarantine facilities and additional beds in government hospitals.
Senator Richard J. Gordon, chairman and CEO of the Philippine Red Cross, disclosed that to ensure that the public can easily get their coronavirus test results, a special desk has been designated at the PRC’s COVID-19 call center for follow ups on results.
Gordon said this is to ensure that the results will reach the person who was tested at the earliest possible time, noting that there were cases where the person who was tested did not receive the result at all.
The PRC chairman said that after the caller’s name has been verified on the list, he or she could give a contact number and the email address where the result could be sent.
At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Health Undersecretary Lilibeth David said the DOH plans to double the number of hospital beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients in the country.
"The target for COVID-dedicated beds in the country is 30,000 total beds. Our current supply is 13,304 beds so we have a gap of 16,696 beds," David said.
Nevertheless, she added that this gap will further be reduced because of grants secured from the Asian Development Bank and World Bank which will allow the establishment of about 12,000 more, she added.
"The remaining gap for COVID-dedicated beds would be 4,361," she said.