MANILA (UPDATE) - The Department of Health (DOH) said Wednesday it was finalizing plans to repatriate Filipinos on board a cruise ship off Japan that has seen more than 500 people infected with the dreaded coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
"DOH will follow strict infection and quarantine procedures to ensure the safety of our repatriates and health workers who will man the quarantine facility,” said Health Assistant Secretary for Public Health Services Maria Rosario Vergeire during a press conference.
Vergeire said out of the more than 500 Filipinos aboard the MV Diamond Princess, 41 tested positive for COVID-19, a new strain of coronavirus that has left more than 70,000 people sick and 2,000 people dead, mostly in China.
“All those who tested positive are crew members,” she said.
While people who test positive for COVID-19 will stay in hospitals in Japan, where the ship is docked, the rest who do not show symptoms of the illness can request to be flown back to the Philippines.
Vergeire said several Filipino patients had signified interest in being repatriated but were waiting for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to make the announcement.
She said everyone who wanted to be repatriated would be tested first. Only those who are negative of COVID-19 will be allowed to return to the Philippines.
While the repatriation can happen within a week, Vergeire said they were still threshing out details, including how the Filipino crew members would be transported back to the country.
“That’s what we want to happen. Although it can be 1 or 2 [airline] carriers, they should arrive in 1 batch, at the same time,” she said.
Vergeire said the inter-agency task force (IATF) handling the COVID-19 outbreak initially discussed if the repatriates should be brought in quarantine by batches, especially since they were supposedly exposed to the virus on different dates.
But DOH prefers that everyone is brought in at the same time on a chartered plane, she added.
The health official reiterated that the repatriates would have to undergo another 14-day quarantine despite being quarantined already on the ship.
“We already have identified a facility. But for now we want to properly coordinate it with the local governments and the community,” she said. “We understand the concerns of the local governments.”
Earlier this month, the government repatriated 30 Filipinos from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the new virus.
All of them, as well as the 19 other government personnel who assisted them, are staying at the New Clark City in Capas, Tarlac.
The plan to house them there was opposed by the local government, who were worried that their constituents would be exposed to COVID-19. So far, none of the repatriates have tested positive for the disease.
Besides New Clark City, another facility that was previously considered for the repatriates was Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. There is no confirmation yet if that is where the new repatriates will be housed.
Like in New Clark City, the DOH will also assign a referral hospital that is near.
Vergeire said the hospital should be able to handle all the repatriates during their stay in the quarantine facility.