MANILA (UPDATED) — Batanes is one of the very few places in the Philippines that has remained untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the start of the pandemic, the country’s northernmost province has had zero COVID-19 cases despite having almost 400 people going home to Batanes from other provinces in Cagayan Valley region and Metro Manila.
Back in April, the Philippines still had 26 provinces with zero COVID-19 cases, including 9 island provinces.
Experts said then that the geography of the 26 provinces — located in islands, seashores or mountainous regions — helped shield them from the spread of the COVID-19, which already infected almost 7,000 people — mostly in city centers — in the country.
But more than 3 months later, the number of total confirmed cases in the Philippines has ballooned to more than 100,000, and Batanes is the only province that still has zero COVID-19 cases, at least based on Department of Health (DOH) data as of posting time.
Two other provinces are claiming they are also COVID-free but DOH data as of Aug. 4 say that Dinagat Islands has 2 COVID-19 cases while Quirino province has 3. Asked for clarification, the health department said they are still validating the data and will make corrections if necessary.
The other 25 provinces — including Dinagat Islands and Quirino province — that used to be COVID-free now have a combined total of more than 900 cases, according to the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group. Nearly half of these patients have recovered although 462 remain active or are still recuperating in hospitals or under home quarantine.
More than half (14) of these provinces recorded their first case in June. Masbate has the highest number of active cases with 73, followed by Sarangani with 46.
FEAR OF COVID
“Malaking advantage yung isla kami at mahirap mapuntahan,” Batanes Governor Marilou Cayco told ABS-CBN News in a phone interview.
(It’s a big advantage that we’re an island and it’s difficult to come here.)
But Cayco said it's not just geography that's keeping Batanes COVID-free.
The governor said they are extra cautious because of their lack of health facilities.
“Kulang kami sa kagamitan sa ospital,” she said. “Yung aming ventilator, 2 lang po yung meron kami. Kaya ho kami ingat na ingat.”
(We lack hospital equipment. We only have 2 ventilators that’s why we are very careful.)
Based on the DOH website, there are only two hospitals in Batanes — Batanes General Hospital and Itbayat District Hospital.
She said they also do not have air transportation for emergencies.
Because of their limitations, Cayco said that as early as January, Batanes was already screening visitors for fever and other COVID-related symptoms.
She said anyone who experiences symptoms are immediately sent to their quarantine facilities and are tested for COVID-19. Their quarantine facilities include two resorts that used to cater to tourists.
And while they earn mostly from tourism, they closed off the island to tourists starting March 16.
“Pinili namin ang kalusugan. Kaya sinara namin ng March 16 ang Batanes sa mga turista kahit alam namin marami ang mawawalan ng trabaho at negosyo. Sabi namin, mas madali yung tutulungan na lang natin ang nawalan ng trabaho at negosyo kaysa mawalan ng buhay,” Cayco said.
(We chose health. That is why we closed Batanes to tourists on March 16 even if we knew that many will lose their jobs and their business. We said then that it would be easier to help those who lose their jobs and businesses than to lose lives.)
LOCALLY STRANDED INDIVIDUALS
Cayco said that among the strict measures that they imposed was the handling of locally stranded individuals and crew members of ships that bring in food to the island.
“Kasi pag walang barko papunta sa Batanes, magugutom naman kami. Pero mahigpit kami sa port. Hindi nakakababa yung mga crew ng barko,” she said.
(If there are no ships going to Batanes, we will starve. But we’re strict at the ports. Ship crew members cannot disembark.)
She said the Coast Guard and the local police closely monitor port activities, and Batanes residents are not allowed to enter the ships and interact with the visiting sailors.
As of this week, Batanes had 374 Locally Stranded Individuals (LSIs), the last batch arriving on the island last July 30.
Cayco said many are students and workers temporarily based in Cagayan.
A local ordinance allows only one flight every 16 days, and only 65 passengers are allowed onboard. This limited number of passengers is based on their available beds in quarantine facilities.
Cayco said they are also strict in implementing the 14-day quarantine, requiring even top officials to undergo it.
“Alam namin wala kaming COVID (pero) lahat naka-mask. Ako naka-shield pa nga. Ibig sabihin, sinusunod namin ang mga protocol kahit alam namin na COVID-free po kami,” she said.
(While we know we don’t have COVID, everyone wears a mask. I even wear a face shield. This means, we follow the protocol even if we are COVID-free.)
Cayco said political will, good coordination and concern for each other are among the things that have helped Batanes stay COVID-free.
DINAGAT ISLANDS 'MIS-TAGGED'?
Meantime, Dr. Jillian Lee, provincial health officer of Dinagat Islands, also cited the advantages of being an island province, including the ability to closely monitor all entry points.
In an interview with TeleRadyo on Thursday, she said their lone entry point is in the capital town and everyone who enters the province is required to undergo a 14-day quarantine.
Lee also said that the regional DOH told them that the COVID-19 case logged under the province was “mis-tagged.”
“Sa province, lahat ng testing dumadaan sa amin,” Lee said. “Alam namin kung sino ang na-swab at alam namin lahat ng na-swab sa amin ay wala pang lumalabas na positive ang result. Ang iniisip namin, baka isa syang tao na taga-Dinagat islands pero wala sya sa Dinagat Islands.”
(In the province, everyone who gets tested goes through our office. We know who have been swabbed and that none have tested positive. We’re thinking it might be a person who lived in Dinagat Islands before but is no longer based in Dinagat Islands.)
The DOH central office has not confirmed if the two cases under Dinagat Islands are indeed “mis-tagged.”