MANILA — When infectious disease expert Dr. Edsel Salvaña woke up on March 14 with sore throat, he immediately had himself admitted to the hospital.
It has just been two days since one of his patients had died from pneumonia.
“You always worry because PPE (personal protective equipment) isn’t perfect,” he told ABS-CBN News, explaining that he handled two patients with pneumonia who did not have a travel history or exposure to patients of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
At the time when he developed sore throat, cough and headaches, he was still waiting for the test results of his patients.
“We tested (for COVID-19) because their X-rays looked suspicious, but most people who took care of them before I came on board did not use the usual PPE,” he said.
He was on his way to the hospital when he learned that the patient who died two days earlier was COVID-19 positive.
“I went straight to my hospital room and isolated myself for a week,” he said.
“I was really scared, especially since I live with my in-laws who are both in their 80s. It could be really deadly to them and so I didn’t want to take any chances.”
Fortunately, his test results, which arrived six days later, came back negative for COVID-19.
More than a week later, Salvaña is still coughing and waiting for his precautionary 14-day quarantine to end.
Salvaña, director of the University of the Philippines - Manila's National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, said he will continue working remotely with the Department of Health and the UP Philippine General Hospital.
DOCTOR AND SCIENTIST
Before his health scare, Salvaña had been helping educate the public and combat fake news through his online posts and media interviews.
He had long been known as an expert on HIV and had received several awards for his work in raising awareness about the spread of HIV in the country.
As a child, he had always wanted to be a scientist and eventually became interested in the field of biology.
“I enrolled in BS Biology in Diliman even though I qualified for the accelerated medicine program in UP Manila because I wasn’t yet sure if I wanted to be a doctor,” he said.
”It was also in Diliman where I met my wife Angela and my future father-in-law National Scientist and Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Dr. Ernesto Domingo who was both a doctor AND a scientist,” he said. It was then that he realized that he can be both.
After graduating from the UP College of Medicine in 2001, he trained as an internist in the United States, focusing on infectious diseases and tropical medicine at the University Hospital Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
“I returned to the Philippines as a Balik Scientist in 2008,” he said.
That was when he became a faculty member at the UP College of Medicine and the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at UP’s National Institutes of Health.
While waiting for his quarantine period to end, Salvaña continues to post about COVID-19, dispelling myths and sharing helpful information.
There are also the occasional personal posts, including a drawing from one of his children, with the question, “How are you doing Dad?” scribbled on the paper.
Salvaña said that as a health professional, the risk of being infected is “part of (the) mission.”
“We accept the risk. But we should have a fighting chance by making sure we are properly protected,” he told ABS-CBN News. “You cannot eliminate the risk, but you can minimize it if we have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).”
“If the doctors and healthcare workers go down, it’s game over,” he said.
In the past days, PPE shortages in hospitals have been reported as both the DOH and the World Health Organization admitting that there is a global shortage.
APPEAL TO FILIPINOS
On March 20, the day he received his test results, Salvaña appealed to the public to cooperate during the lockdown period.
“For the employees and the day to day workers, understand why this is being asked of you and stay put. To employers, please help your employees. To the government, ensure that the most vulnerable daily wage earners are taken care of and don’t go hungry,” he said.
In his Facebook post, he addressed the public in Filipino, explaining how other countries have also dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that there is still a chance to prevent further spread of the disease.
Asked if the lockdown will help address the outbreak in the Philippines, he said, “I truly hope so. The reason we started really early, at 33 cases, was because you also have to think of the undetected cases, as well as the experiences in China and Italy.”
“If you wait for the traditional evidence thresholds for taking drastic action, you will be overwhelmed. The current situation is because the government listened to the experts and we studied the experience of other countries,” Salvaña said.
FLATTENING THE CURVE
“However as you saw, the implementation of the initial general community quarantine was difficult and people did not comply. Hence the need for implementing more stringent measures including suspending public transport. I only hope it is enough to ‘flatten’ our curve and the hospitals don’t get overwhelmed,” he said.
Flattening the curve refers to community isolation measures such as the lockdown that will make an outbreak more manageable. The slower spread is expected to be more manageable for the health sector and result in fewer fatalities.
Asked if the COVID-19 pandemic is the most difficult situation he has encountered as a doctor, Salvaña said, “It is from an immediate societal standpoint.”
“Because if we don’t try to stop this monster, millions of people will die. The health system can’t cope,” he said.
He said he’s had a lot of experience dealing with critically-ill patients, especially those with HIV but are drug-resistant.
“We’ve done a lot on that front since I returned home, but with HIV you have time to fix the system,” he said. “COVID-19 can kill someone in a week, and each person can infect 2 to 4 other people. At least 5% of people will die without proper intensive care.”