Police authorities are looking into reports that an unidentified syndicate is smuggling undocumented Locally Stranded Individuals (LSIs) into the Bicol region on board private vans.
Catanduanes police provincial director Col. Paul Abay told the Provincial COVID-19 Task Force chaired by Governor Joseph Cua that he will look into the allegations aired during the meeting last week at the capitol.
Citing text messages, two members of the task force disclosed that undocumented LSIs paid P5,000 each to board an unmarked passenger van at Cubao, Quezon City for the trip to Naga City where they were allegedly secured or were given travel documents.
Col. Abay said he will ask the Naga City police office, now led by his classmate, Col. Marlon Catan, to verify the report.
Official sources interviewed by the Tribune revealed that last week, two LSIs from San Andres traveled on June 21, 2020 from Manila where they had been working as household helpers for the same family. Two days later, they disembarked from the ferry and went to their respective homes in two barangays.
A resident of the barangay wondered how one of the LSIs, who is a relative, managed to come home as she had tested positive while in Manila on a rapid test. The report soon reached the authorities which immediately placed the two LSIs under quarantine and secured swabs for RT-PCR testing.
The two women reportedly arrived at Tabaco Port and presented separate Travel Authority (TA) documents but with the same control number.
One of them had the required Medical Clearance Certificate (MCC) issued by the local health office in the origin Local Government Unit (LGU) but the other did not. As a result, the other woman was not allowed entry and was told by port officials to secure an MCC from the Tabaco City health office.
A check of the TAs presented by the two LSIs show that the signature of the issuing officer, National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) regional director Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas, is different from that appearing on an actual TA from the same office.
The duo’s TAs also did not indicate the type of vehicle and plate number, while the control number was apparently printed apart from the date on the document, as the texts were not level with each other as in the authentic TAs.
A travel authority is supposedly issued only upon presentation of the medical certificate, which should be presented along with the TA at quarantine checkpoints or at the port prior to boarding.
The MCC, on the other hand, is secured from the health office of the locality where the LSI has been staying prior to applying for the TA.
PD Abay said the the two travelers should have presented the TA along with the barangay certification and the MCC.
He added if there were none, then the TA is possibly fake.
“Madaling gayahin ang porma ng TA,” he stressed, pointing out that the travel documents would be dubious if the TA is issued in Quezon City and the MCC is from Naga City health office.
It is claimed that the San Andres police is investigating duo’s entry and will file corresponding criminal charges if a probe confirms their TAs are not authentic.
Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) provincial director Uldarico Razal Jr. said that in a conference with Regional Director Anthony Nuyda, he raised the issue of the loopholes in the arrival procedures at Tabaco Port, which will be brought out in a meeting of the Regional Inter-Agency Task Force.
It was also learned that days before their departure, the two women, along with other members of the family were made to undergo a rapid test administered by the doctor son of their employer. One of the two maids tested positive in the first test and negative in the second test.
Gov. Cua had already assigned a permanent employee of the Provincial Health Office (PHO) and three job order workers at Tabaco port to verify documents of arriving LSIs.
Dr. Angel Albert Lamban pointed out that the arrival of all LSIs are supposedly coordinated with the provincial LGUs and municipal LGUs, with those not in the list to be held at the port.
“Ang nagiging problema, nalulusutan tayo,” he said, stressing that the task force needs to perfect the coordination, especially in informing the destination LGUs.
For its part, the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (PDRRMO), represented by Andrew Facundo confirmed that there are arrivals which were not on the LSI list.
He suggested that the port screeners be given the discretion to hold arrivals without the proper documents, citing the case of a lawyer who refused to alight from his vehicle to undergo verification and health checks.
Facundo described as very critical the role of the port control monitoring teams as new COVID-19 cases will come from outside the province.
In response to this issue, the provincial IATF decided to designate the San Andres Central Elementary School (SACES) gymnasium and the Virac Sports Center as temporary holding areas for LSIs awaiting clearance and vehicles bringing them to their respective towns.
The body will also raise with the Regional IATF and the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) general manager the issue of allowing the use of the latter’s passenger terminals in Virac and San Andres as holding areas for LSIs waiting for vehicles but not to extend beyond the night.
Arriving LSIs often spend hours waiting at the two ports as some LGUs do not have available vehicles to fetch them.
DILG’s Razal bared that his office has received a memorandum requesting all LGUs to inventory their facilities and equipment, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), used in the anti-COVID-19 program, to determine the capability and readiness of the local governments.
It was also highlighted that the Department of Education (DepEd) will allow the use of public schools as quarantine facilities only until June 30, 2020, unless the LGUs concerned request for an extension through a new memorandum of agreement.
According to the local office of the Department of Health (DOH), only three towns – Pandan, Viga and Virac – have accredited quarantine facilities in the province, with San Andres set to build its own.
On the issue of requiring rapid test on arrivals at Tabaco Port, the task force failed to agree, as it was pointed out that the provincial government may have to feed and provide lodging for those who test positive and it would not be practical.
‘We cannot control ang pag-uwi ng mga tao, so we should protect ourselves, diretso sila sa quarantine,” Provincial Health Office II Dr. Hazel Palmes declared, citing a new DOH guideline that no testing will be done for arrivals after they complete 14 days of quarantine.
“We are willing to do rapid testing in Tabaco,” Gov. Cua said, but the real problem would be the Authorized Persons Outside Residence (APORs) especially sales agents who are going around the island.
“May mga ahenteng may darang awto na pabalik-balik sa mainland,” he volunteered.
The chief executive said six recent visitors on board a private van were asked to undergo rapid testing at their own expense.
While the rapid test can only be used for symptomatic people, Dr. Lamban remarked, it can also be used like a lie detector test to catch those who claim that they have not suffered COVID-like symptoms.
Eastern Bicol Medical Center (EBMC) chief Dr. Vietrez Abella said quarantine is still the best way to prevent the spread of coronavirus and moved that the IATF and LGUs be requested not to issue travel documents to LSIs who have not informed their destination LGUs.