MANILA (UPDATE) — President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the Department of Health to "critique" Cebu province's COVID-19 protocol that differs from that of the inter-agency task force leading the country's pandemic response, Malacañang said on Tuesday.
Cebu tests passengers upon arrival in the airport. The IATF requires this screening on the 7th day of travelers' quarantine.
Duterte and Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia on Monday met for about 2 hours to thresh out this difference, said Palace spokesman Harry Roque.
"Ang sabi pa rin ng Presidente, ang mga national policies dapat sinusunod ng lahat," he said in a press briefing.
"Pero pagdating po dito sa Cebu, ang naging desisyon ni Presidente, bigyan natin hanggang Huwebes ang DOH para mag-critique doon sa revised protocols o ibang protocols na pinapatupad sa Cebu, at tingnan natin kung akma ba talaga ito sa Cebu o meron ba tayong matututunan," he added.
(The President said everyone should follow national policies. But when it comes to Cebu, the President decided to give the DOH until Thursday to critique the revised protocols Cebu is implementing, whether or not it is apt for Cebu or if we can learn something.)
Garcia told Duterte her province tests inbound travelers for the novel coronavirus upon arrival, allow them to go on home quarantine monitored by the barangay, and undergo another COVID-19 screening on the seventh day, said Roque.
A temporary shortage of quarantine beds forced the local government to implement this protocol. Local officials also believe this would be more effective in detecting COVID-19 cases, said Roque, quoting Garcia.
Cebu authorities, he said, also considered "humanitarian grounds" for Filipinos returning from abroad, who want to immediately go home to their families.
"Siguro dapat magkaroon din ng openness ang ating mga kasama, at tatanungin natin ang mga sarili, bakit nga ba ang Cebu province, 10 buwan nang nasa MGCQ, samantalang ang Metro Manila nananaginip lang ng MGCQ?" Roque said, referring to the lowest of 4 lockdown levels, modified general community quarantine.
(Perhaps our colleagues should have a bit of openness and ask ourselves why Cebu has been under MGCQ for 10 months, while Metro Manila is only dreaming of MGCQ.)
"Baka naman po mayroon tayong pupuwedeng magaya sa Cebu. Bigyan po natin ng pagkakataon na mag-critique ang Department of Health hanggang Huwebes," he added.
(Maybe there is something we can copy from Cebu. Let us give the Department of Health a chance to critique until Thursday.)
In a press conference in Cebu on Tuesday afternoon, Garcia said she will await Malacañang’s decision on the protocol for returning overseas Filipinos (ROF).
She said she has explained to Duterte that her decision to release ROFs who test negative on the second day since arrival did not contribute to an increase in cases. In fact, Cebu has managed to keep new and active cases low, she said.
“My answer to him was, if you see something working, wouldn’t it be worth it to study it?,” Garcia said, recounting her meeting with Duterte along with other IATF members.
In Garcia’s executive order, ROFs are swabbed upon arrival and released two days after a negative result. They are tested again on the seventh day. The IATF mandates the completion of a 10-day hotel quarantine.
“We are only arguing about the hotel stay which is a heavy financial burden. I am very humanitarian about it,” said Garcia, noting that a lot of OFWs return home not for vacation but for emergencies.
Garcia said Cebu province currently has 355 active COVID-19 cases. The province has logged a total of 15,562 infections of the virus, according to the Department of Health - Central Visayas office.
She noted that new cases in the province have also declined, recording only 24 in the week of May 30.
The governor also shared that as regards hospital bed occupancy, 89 of the 400 available beds are being utilized, of which 43 are by COVID-19 patients, 35 are by patients with influenza-like illness, and 11 are those with severe acute respiratory infection.
Roque on Monday called Garcia his "BFF" (best friend forever) and denied that a report that he would file insubordination charges against Garcia over Cebu's quarantine rules.
Last week, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea issued a memorandum that diverted to Manila flights heading to Cebu until June 5.
The memo said local governments must enforce the IATF’s approved travel rules for inbound international travelers “regardless of any specific protocols that may be issued by LGUs.”
Roque last week denied that Cebu's defiance of COVID-19 rules prompted the Palace to divert to Manila flights heading toward the province.
Garcia last year also made pronouncements that differed from the national government's directives.
Garcia endorsed the practice of "tuob" or steam inhalation against COVID-19. The health department said this does not prevent or cure the respiratory disease.
In June last year, Duterte banned motorcycle backrides in Cebu, after Garcia issued an executive order allowing it.
-- with report from Annie Perez