No less than Governor Joseph Cua fears that the impending return of hundreds, if not thousands, of native Catandunganons now based in coronavirus-hit Metro Manila cities and towns could bring in asymptomatic COVID-19 cases to the island if the repatriation program is not managed well.
Last Monday afternoon, the newly-reorganized Emerging and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases Provincial Task Force (EREID-PTF) chaired by Governor Joseph Cua held its first meeting to discuss the matter, primarily to craft a specific plan on the management of the returnees.
Those set to arrive in the next days or weeks include the 16 students stranded at the University of the Philippines campus in Los Baños, Laguna, Catanduanes State University engineering students who were caught by the lockdown while reviewing for their board exam, and Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who have been staying at various hotels and lodging establishments in Pasay City for more than a month now.
The UPLB students will be brought to Tagkawayan, Quezon border with Camarines Norte where they will be picked up and bused to Tabaco City for the ferry trip to San Andres.
“Ang piga problemahan ta ngonian kung after May 15 kung ma-lift ang GCQ ta, natakot ako kung magparibod ang mga taga-Catanduanes sa Manila, kung pan-o pag-handle kaini,” Gov. Cua said, although it is clear that it will be the discretion of the local government units if the GCQ will be maintained.
We will write letters to bus companies or ferry boat operators not to issue tickets to would-be passengers in the absence of proof of quarantine or health certificate that they are free of the virus, he stated in an interview with members of the Catanduanes Island Media Club (CIMC) last Friday, May 8, 2020.
Official representatives of the provincial government can also be sent to the ticketing offices of main bus terminals in Manila who would check on these proofs.
But the governor prefers Sorsogon Governor Chiz Escudero’s decision to send sweeper buses to the metropolis to fetch his provincemates as he (Cua) believes Metro Manila’s ECQ would be extended.
“Luway-luwayon tang paparibodon itong mga nakulong sa lockdown pati itong mga OFW,” he said, adding that the province could help so those returning would not flock.
It will be difficult to manage the problem that would be created if the virus sneaks into the island from Metro Manila, Cua stressed.
We should study the General Community Quarantine (GCQ) extension and evaluate if those who apply for the free travel pass are qualified, he said further.
Despite the governor’s support for the countryside development program, the provincial government is apprehensive that a flood of Catandunganons from Metro Manila would return to the island under the “Balik Probinsiya, Bagong Pag-asa” program, which has been institutionalized by President Rodrigo Duterte.
“We are studying the Sorsogon and Masbate best practices on how to manage the issuance of free travel passes to returning Catandunganons from Metro Manila,” Gov. Cua said.
In Sorsogon, Gov. Escudero has directed that any person entering the province may choose to undergo a mandatory five-day quarantine in a designated government facility after which he/she may, at his/her personal expense or cost, have a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) or Rapid Test Kit (RTK) witnessed or done by an authorized government personnel or by an authorized private laboratory, with the result showing that he/she is not positive with COVID-19.
The Escudero executive order also provides that no checkpoints bordering LGUs shall be established, unless a COVID-19 positive case has been identified in the adjacent or bordering LGU but only insofar as the lockdown period is concerned.
Under Executive Order No. 114 covering the Balik Probinsiya program, the national government seeks to empower local industries in the countryside, ensure food security and agricultural productivity, promote social welfare, health and employment, and develop local infrastructure so that people would no longer go to the already congested metropolis.
On the short term, the BP#2 will provide assistance for the efficient, voluntary movement of individuals and enterprises from the National Capital Region (NCR) to rural areas. The aid could come in the form of transportation and relocation, transitory support from existing social welfare and housing programs, livelihood and employment packages, agri-based support services, educational programs, and for MSMEs, fiscal incentives, transition assistance, and fast-tracked processing of permits.
On the other hand, Gov. Cua announced that the repatriation of those going back to the mainland, including 14 resort workers from Marilima, Virac whose return has been okayed by Polangui, Albay, is now being processed by the provincial government.
The capitol has already sent a request to the regional IATF for the approval of their permit to travel, he said, along with a similar letter covering Camarines Sur students at the Christian Polytechnic Institute of Catanduanes (CPIC) who had been stranded at their boarding house.
The approval process takes some time but we have to follow the protocol, Cua stated.
With regards to the province’s relief operation, the chief executive disclosed that the depletion of the COVID-19 funds meant households in 15 barangays in Virac and the entire 38 barangays in San Andres failed to receive P600 worth of rice and canned goods.
As this would need about P10 million more, the provincial government would have to realign allocations in the P36-million Bayanihan Fund to complete the relief distribution. The 20% Development Fund would also be realigned to provide program funding for Metro Manila returnees who have lost their jobs during the lockdown.
A chunk will be taken from the Bayanihan Fund along with an amount from the General Fund to establish a separate COVID-19 ward that would be physically set apart from the main building of the Eastern Bicol Medical Center (EBMC).
As to the possibility of mass testing, the governor said we are dependent on the national government for the test kits.
We will also check if funds would allow the establishment of a testing facility as proposed by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, he added.
He described as a lesson learned the case of Catanduanes’ lone confirmed COVID-19 case who is now awaiting her second negative test. Any Person Under Investigation (PUI) should not be discharged without a negative test, he stressed.
“Naugma ako ta sa barangay na iguang mga incident na nag-arabot, nag-uusip mismo ang tawo sa autoridad,” Gov. Cua remarked. “Dapat arog kita kaini. Kaipuhan ta ang tabang ning masa.”
What we need right now is the cooperation of new arrivals to comply with the 14-day quarantine, he emphasized.
With commercial flights set to resume after the GCQ, passengers will have to be accepted by the LGU upon presentation of a medical clearance but they could be told to undergo 14-day quarantine.