Lost time is never found again.
This timeless quote from Benjamin Franklin now weighs heavily in the minds and hearts of local chief executives, some local health personnel and Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams (BHERTs) as they scramble to address what now appears to be a full-blown threat against the 270,000 people of Catanduanes.
Since January when the Wuhan coronavirus began to spread from China, the provincial government, particularly the Provincial Health Office (PHO) in coordination with the Department of Health (DOH), had been busy establishing a protocol to be followed once the virus arrives in the country. Among these protocols is what to do in case of travelers from areas where local transmission of COVID-19 has been confirmed.
According to a member of the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (PDRRMC), it had been agreed that the BHERTs would take charge of monitoring arrivals in their respective villages and that there would be no need to ask passengers on ferries to fill up disembarkation cards prior to exiting the two main ports.
But the confirmation of COVID-19 positive cases in Metro Manila dramatically changed the situation, made worse by President Rodrigo Duterte’s “community quarantine” that gave anyone who wanted to flee the nation’s capital 48 hours to go home to their provinces.
From March 13, a day after the Palace announcement until Monday, March 16, with the announcement of an enhanced quarantine that included a mass transport ban, about 3,000 people are believed to have entered the island of Catanduanes through the ferries docking at Virac and Calolbon.
These included several prominent local politicians and appointive public officials who were later seen reporting to their offices, attending COVID-19 preparedness meetings and mixing around with the public.
Under the protocol set up by health officials, all of these 3,000 people are supposed to be considered Persons Under Monitoring (PUMs), as they came from an area of COVID-19 local transmission.
However, from the first ferry trip on March 13, none of them were handed a disembarkation form to fill up and submit later to a team that waited at the boat ramp.
All of them, of course, underwent a temperature check by health personnel under the watchful eyes of the police, a procedure that experts say does not detect asymptomatic cases and contributes none to the effort of contact tracing.
The problem got worse at the barangay level, where many BHERTs failed to function. Only a few managed to locate and monitor recent arrivals from Manila while a great number of the “evacuees” went around their native towns, ruing the strictness of the COVID-19 procedures.
As Provincial Health Officer II Dr. Hazel Palmes underscored during a testy emergency PDRRMC meeting with mayors and stakeholders, it is now too late to close the proverbial Pandora’s box that has in all likelihood brought in among us a carrier of the coronavirus.
According to a study conducted by the director of the Institute of Medical Virology in Frankfurt, Germany, Dr. Sandra Ciesek, and reported on CNN, seven of the 24 passengers from Israel that she tested upon arrival were positive for the virus.
Four of them had no symptoms, said Ciesek. What surprised her was that the viral load of the specimens from the asymptomatic patients was higher than the viral load of the specimens from the three patients who had symptoms.
It would now be a matter of time until the virus surfaces in any of the 315 barangays of the island.
The government hopes that the stringent travel restrictions, the ban on mass transport including tricycles, work and class suspensions, and general home confinement except for those on necessary errands, would limit its spread to a few localities.
The alternative is unthinkable: a flood of COVID-19 patients would overwhelm the island’s undermanned and woefully equipped health system.
Let us therefore, and individually, continue to pray for God’s deliverance from this modern scourge but, first, observe the quarantine, stay at home and limit contact with the rest of the public.
Do this if you really love yourself and your family.