Local government units in Catanduanes are not being informed in advance on arriving Overseas Filipino Workers being repatriated by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
This was learned by the Tribune following the arrival last Sunday, June 12, 2020, of yet another OFW, a male from Baras town, from Metro Manila at the port of Virac.
Another OFW, a native of Virac, is still at the Tula-tula quarantine facility of Ligao City awaiting for clearance to board the ferry back to the island.
According to reliable sources, the provincial capitol only learned of the Baras OFW’s arrival only last Sunday morning after the ferry had left the Tabaco port.
It is claimed that the OWWA repatriation desk at the regional office was not informed of the two OFWs arrival by the Ligao health authorities.
The report did not discount the possibility that there would be more returning OFWs whose travel back to the province would be uncoordinated with local officials.
OWWA, it is alleged, concerns itself only with assisting the OFWs as far as their travel is concerned and does not check the veracity of their documents, particularly on their health status.
While OWWA Manila forwards to its regional offices a list of OFWs boarding buses back to their provinces, the regional officials concerned cannot vouch for the arriving OFWs which are not on the list.
The non-coordinated travel of OFWS bound for Bicol has become a problem for the OWWA regional office. Although the matter has already been discussed with those in-charge of the departure process at the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange (PITX), an OWWA officer claimed there are still bus officials who travel with the OFWs who neglect to coordinate the arrivals with them.
As a result, local officials of destination provinces learn of the OFWs’ arrival only when they are already on their way.
This was what apparently happened in the case of the 49-year old OFW who arrived in the country from Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a pipefitter, on May 23 and was brought to a Makati City hotel for quarantine.
He was swabbed on the day of his arrival, with his specimen was taken to the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) Molecular Laboratory where it was found to be positive for the presence of SARS-COV2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease on June 1.
Apparently without waiting for the test results, he secured a seat on a bus that would transport OFWs from Manila to Tabaco on June 6, presenting a Quarantine Certificate dated June 5, 2020 certifying that he had completed the mandatory quarantine process and was free of COVID-19.
Upon arrival the following day, he stayed overnight at Tabaco National High School (TNHS) where he shared a room with a female OFW from San Andres town.
He arrived at Virac port on June 8 via ferry and was interviewed by a police officer and then had his health condition checked by Rural Health Unit personnel.
Fetched by an RHU team in charge of arriving Locally Stranded Individuals (LSIs) and Returning Overseas Filipinos (ROFs), he was then transported aboard an ambulance to a quarantine facility in San Miguel.
It was already in the afternoon of June 9 when the Municipal Health Officer, Dr. Lilian Olfindo, got a call from the Bureau of Quarantine, looking for the OFW which it said had tested positive for COVID-19.
Upon learning of the development, provincial health officials immediately informed Governor Joseph Cua, who convened an emergency meeting of the Emerging and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases-Provincial Task Force (EREID-PTF) together with the officials of local government units concerned.
A case validation and review was conducted along with coordination with OWWA, BOQ, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the Philippine Coast Guard and the Department of Health (DOH) Regional Epidemiology Surveillance Unit (RESU).
Contact tracing was immediately commenced, with at least four fellow passengers on the ferry – including two ranking officials of two national agencies – notified by the municipal health officers and directed to place themselves under quarantine so they could be properly monitored for any signs and symptoms of the coronavirus disease.
There is no word as to the tracing being done on other OFWs and the bus crew members who were with the man during the overland travel from Manila.
Specimens were collected from the OFW, now dubbed as patient Cat-2, and the other local close contacts and sent through the 1 P.M. ferry to the mainland for analysis.
The specimen from Cat-2 nearly failed to make it aboard after the Eastern Bicol Medical Center, which initially agreed to take in the patient for isolation, changed its mind. San Miguel RHU personnel reportedly refused to take the swab, claiming lack of training, with the swab to be made at EBMC instead.
Last Thursday afternoon (June 11), Cat-2 was supposed to be transferred to an isolation ward at the Bato Maternity and Children’s Hospital (BMCH) but Tamburan barangay officials opposed the move, fearing the patient could infect residents.
During the joint meeting of the Provincial Peace and Order Council (PPOC) and Provincial Anti-Drug Abuse Council (PADAC) chaired by Gov. Cua, Provincial Health Officer II Dr. Hazel Palmes stressed that the Day Care Center in barangay District 3 in San Miguel where the OFW was quarantined is not compliant with DOH standards and thus he has to be moved to a temporary treatment and monitoring facility within the Inter-Local Health Zone.
It was also pointed out that as per DOH circular, COVID-19 positive patients with mild symptoms should only be confined at a Level 1 hospital.
“BMCH health personnel are ready and they cannot deny such patients as the facility is compliant with infectious prevention and control standards,” Dr. Palmes said, adding that the isolation ward is physically set apart from the main hospital building.
She bristled at the barangay chairman’s statement that she would be held responsible if somehow any resident gets infected, describing it as unfair.
Gov. Cua also emphasized that LGUs are mandated to have isolation facilities for COVID-19 cases.
“Ang problema sa RHU, suspect pa lang habo na magkarapot maski kalentura pa lang, tarakot,” he said, noting that the local health offices should properly manage its patients so that the provincial hospital will not be overloaded with cases.
“We need to ensure that all stranded persons are negative of COVID-19,” he added.
For his part, San Miguel Mayor Francisco Camano Jr. disclosed that they did not expect this to happen and expressed concern about the four personnel who brought the OFW, a native of Samar, to the town from the Virac port.
“Matiyaga kami kung dai nang maginibo,” he said, referring to the possibility that the patient could remain at the District 3 quarantine facility despite the fact that it is in a flood-prone area.
He also stressed that aside from the ambulance personnel, the OFW had no contact with family members while in quarantine.
Last Friday, June 12, the DOH Center for Health Development – Bicol confirmed that the San Miguel OFW tested positive for COVID-19 after his sample was run at the Bicol Regional Diagnostic and Reference Laboratory (BRDRL).
The following day, his companion on board the bus, a 39-year old OFW from San Andres who also shared a room with him overnight at Tabaco NHS, also tested positive for the virus.
Bicol’s 83rd case reportedly arrived in Manila from the Middle East on April 25, 2020 and is currently asymptomatic while under quarantined at an LGU facility.
The unfortunate development arising from Bicol #82’s questionable arrival on the island has prompted the provincial government to seek clarification from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA)
Citing the fact that he was brought home through the agency’s initiative, Gov. Cua asked the OWWA if it allows the repatriation of returning OFWs only after a confirmatory RT-PCR test is completed and if there is a chance that some of them have been repatriated without the results.
He likewise inquired about measures that OWWA will implement to prevent such cases from happening.
The recent incidents also prompted the Cua administration to put on hold the Balik Happy Island Program (BHIP) which has repatriated more than 300 Locally-Stranded Individuals (LSIs).
It is also calling for some changes in the government’s policy on LSIs.