(L-R) Palawan vice governor Victorino Dennis Socrates, contact tracing czar and Baguio mayor Benjamin Magalong, testing czar Vince Dizon, DOH undersecretary Leopoldo Vega, and Puerto Princesa City mayor Lucilo Bayron.

Puerto Princesa and the rest of Palawan will be designated by the National Inter-Agency Task Force (NIATF) as a priority in its ongoing vaccination rollout, in view of the continuing surge of cases in the city and some parts of the province.

Vaccine czar Vince Dizon, who joined contact tracing czar Benjamin Magalong, in a visit to Puerto Princesa City Thursday (May 20), said that even as the supply of vaccines remains limited, Palawan will be prioritized. He added that this is also the view of IATF head Carlos Galvez.

“Sabi nga ni Secretary Charlie (Galvez), ang mga bakuna natin, dahil nga limitado, talagang ipa-prioritize natin sa mga area na tumataas ang kaso. So, definitely magkakaroon ng priority ang Palawan lalo na ang Puerto Princesa dahil nga tumataas ang kaso at kailangan nating i-ensure na mabukanahan natin lahat ng healthcare workers. Ikalawa, lahat ng mga vulnerable. Priority ang Palawan, lalo na ang Puerto Princesa sa bakuna,” Dizon said.

Dizon said that Puerto Princesa and Palawan will definitely be on the priority list of the national government’s allocated vaccines, particularly those arriving from the World Health Organization (WHO) COVAX facility.

Local officials in both the city and the province have mostly relied on the shipment of vaccines from the national government because of delays in orders from the pharmaceutical companies.

He did not explain however the specific decisions that will be made by the IATF to fast track the vaccination rollout in the province.

This developed as the World Health Organization (WHO) donated two bio-freezers to Palawan to boost the cold-chain storage capability of the province.

“Nabigyan din tayo ng dalawang malaking bio-freezer ng WHO which can store 100,000 to 150,000 vials of vaccines. So ready at may kakayanan tayo for cold storage,” said Provincial Health Office chief Erika Faye Labrador.

Meanwhile, Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong urged Puerto Princesa City to improve its contact tracing, in order to effectively address the spike cases.

Magalong noted during the presser that both Palawan and Puerto Princesa are severely lagging in terms of contact tracing, particularly because of an overwhelmed healthcare system. However, he added that it is crucial that the local government units (LGUs) still do contact tracing if they want to stop the ongoing surge of COVID-19.

“You are not contact tracing, you are only isolating. Wala nang one mile, or extra mile. Siguro dahil you have a surge, nao-overwhelm yung mga healthcare workers ninyo. We checked the data, bakit zero yung close contact? Nagkaroon pala ng contact tracing pero hindi properly documented,” he said.

On Thursday evening, the City Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit (CESU), in its daily bulletin, reported only one new antigen-positive individual. This, however, was not detailed as included among the over 400 first and second generation close contacts of the COVID-19 positive patients.

Top officials of the national Inter-agency Task Force held a meeting with key officials of the Palawan provincial and city governments on Thursday to discuss the current COVID-19 situation in both areas. A Zoom press conference was then held soon after the meeting.

The officials included testing czar Vince Dizon, contact tracing czar and Baguio City mayor Benjamin Magalong, Department of Health (DOH) undersecretary Dr. Teodoro Herbosa, and DOH regional director Mario Baquilod. NIATF chief implementer Carlito Galvez, Jr. did not attend the meeting despite an earlier commitment to visit Palawan.

“They have to use technology to amplify their contact tracing. Please update your CIF (case investigation form) database. Kasi as of April 28, ang contact tracing efficiency ng MIMAROPA, bumagsak na kayo ng 1 is to 3. Kapag sinabing 1 is to 3, ibig sabihin household lang ang kino-contact trace ninyo,” he added.

As of May 19 official tallies, Puerto Princesa has a total of 571 active cases and 33 deaths, while Palawan 453 active cases and 15 deaths.

MECQ back on the table

A Palawan News source revealed that NIATF officials recommended to Puerto Princesa City officials, mainly mayor Lucilo Bayron who was at the meeting, to place urban barangays under modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ).

Magalong also hinted at recommending even tighter restrictions during the meeting.

“We will restrict mobility for a few weeks, and then increase testing. Kailangan itaas ng local government ang kanilang contact tracing,” said Magalong.

Key officials in the city have yet to comment on the recommendation.

Previously, local IATF spokesperson Atty. Norman Yap stated that moving to a higher classification of quarantine is no longer viable for Puerto Princesa City. City Incident Management Team (IMT) chief Dr. Dean Palanca also stated that MECQ is also highly unlikely in previous live briefings.

Accreditation of testing labs underway

Palawan remains crippled in terms of testing because the only accredited testing centers are the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital (CSGH) and the Ospital ng Palawan (ONP). Last week, the ONP laboratory had to close down to undergo repairs, and no new tests were conducted for nearly five days. To boost confirmatory testing, the Palawan provincial government built a molecular laboratory in Barangay Irawan, while the city government recently finished construction in their molecular laboratory in Barangay Sta. Monica.

Dizon stated that the Irawan laboratory will complete accreditation requirements by next week. However, the city molecular laboratory is still waiting for additional machinery and accreditation.

“By next week, accredited na ‘yong mga labs. Malamang mauuna muna ang province, dahil konti na lang ang requirements na kailangan nila. By next week at least accredited na at least yung Palawan lab, then sunod ‘yong Puerto Princesa,” said Dizon.

Identifying new variants not easy

When asked if there is a way to determine if there is a new COVID-19 strain in Palawan, DOH Undersecretary Teodoro Herbosa explained that it is not simple to determine new variants in test samples taken from COVID-positive patients. However, he will assist in Palawan’s request to test several samples to determine if a new variant is causing a more deadly and infectious surge of the virus.

“We actually do random samples kasi we cannot do all the positive tests, like 5,000 positive tests, to run a sample of around 36 or 32. The Philippine Genome Center (PGC), which the DOH pays for, pays about P3 million per run of a full genome sequence. And may delay. It takes a week bago lumabas ang result kasi it takes mga 24 to 48 hours to do a full genome sequencing of a full set of samples,” said Herbosa.

Herbosa said once they have the samples, they will prioritize them to determine what variant they are dealing with in Palawan.

Dizon also said that some Palawan test samples have already been sent to the country’s genome center in UP Diliman.

“But I want to emphasize this, kapag positive ang result, kung ano man ang variant na yan, the prevention, detection, isolation, and treatment strategy should already kick in. Hindi natin kailangang hintayin kung ano ang resulta ng sequencing,” Dizon said.

Positivity rate, not reflective of true PPC COVID-19 situation

Mayor Lucilo Bayron, reacting on the OCTA Research 77 percent positivity rate, said it appears to be not showing the true situation in the city of COVID-19.

Bayron said it is a positivity rate of previously antigen tested individuals that were later confirmed by RT-PCR.

“Marami na tayong measures na ginagawa ngayon, pero mabuti nga pumunta yong mga bisita natin kasi talagang nagpro-problema na tayo kasi hindi pa natin naco-contain yong surge natin. At the rate we’re doing, kailangan na natin ng tulong from the outside at saka matulungan tayo kung paano natin mabilis na maco-contain ito,” he said.

He admitted that at the rate the city is going, it has not yet achieved the correct solution against the COVID-19 surge Puerto Princesa is currently dealing with.

In Palawan, acting governor Dennis Socrates said the 67 percent positivity rate might be “misleading” because the numbers were percentages of those who were confirmed by RT-PCR and not from the initial antigen testing.

“Kung confirmatory na lang yon, syempre malamang ay tama na yong unang test. Sabi nga ni Sec. Dizon, baka nga 97% na yong positive dyan so, medyo misleading. Still we are not complacent. We are still alarmed kasi nga dumami pa rin kahit nga hindi ganoon kataas talaga,” Socrates said.

He said one of the effective responses that may be undertaken is escalating the quarantine status. The province is currently under MGCQ, but there is a recommendation for the province to level up to a higher quarantine status.

Aside from stepped up contact tracing, USec. Leopold Vega said there is also a need to increase isolation beds in facilities in the city and province, particularly for mild and asymptomatic cases.

“Kailangan ma-isolate sila. Dapat we should be able to find more facilities for these patients,” he said.

Hospitals will also need to allocate additional intensive care units (ICUs) (with reports from Patricia Laririt, Celeste Anna Formoso, and Romar Miranda)

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