A new batch of 16 positive COVID-19 cases has been reported by the Incident Management Team (IMT) of Puerto Princesa from the same dive boat that ferried foreign tourists and crew members to Tubbataha Reefs National Park (TRNP) in the third week of April.

Of the total, 14 are foreign tourists from the U.S. and Europe, while two are local crew members, IMT commander Dr. Dean Palanca said during a media briefing Tuesday.

He said the dive boat set sail to Tubbataha on May 14 with 43 individuals (23 tourists and 20 crew members), however after a couple of days, a foreign tourist manifested muscle pains, runny nose due to colds, and recurring fever.

On May 18, the dive boat’s management subjected all foreign guests to COVID-19 antigen testing while in Tubbataha, and the readings for five of them came back positive.

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IMT commander Dr. Dean Palanca (lower right box) answers inquiries from the media on the latest discovery of 16 new COVID-19 positive cases from a Tubbataha dive boat.

The crew chose to return to Puerto Princesa, where they were met by the city’s IMT, and the five passengers were transported to a quarantine facility while the remaining passengers remained on board.

“Sila ay nag-request sa atin sa Puerto Princesa na babalik na kaagad dahil may suspected COVID cases. Sila ay dumating sa Puerto Princesa nitong May 19 ng morning at nang dumating sila sa port, yong IMT ang nag-handle sa kanila para kunin itong limang persons na nag-positive sa antigen test,” Dr. Palanca said.

On Friday, May 20, the others decided to go with the IMT to the quarantine facility. “Itong mga turista na ito, kasama yong mga local crew, [ang nag-handle] sa kanila ang IMT at sila ay [nilagay sa] quarantine pending sa mga gagawing tests kasi sila ay mga close contacts”.

The first five antigen positive patients were sent to the city molecular laboratory for RT PCR testing on the same day, according to Dr. Palanca, and their results came back definite. They were transported back to the isolation facility to complete their quarantine.

On May 23, Dr. Palanca said 11 more tested positive for COVID-19 via RT PCR. All have been fully vaccinated, with some receiving booster injections.

“All in all ay meron tayong 14 na turista na nag-positive at dalawang local crew ng malaking yate na ito. So, 16 po talaga ang suma total out of 43 na katao. Sa 14 na turista, karamihan ay Amerikano at ilan ay taga Europe. Pito ang male at pito rin ang female. Karamihan sa kanila ang age range ay 40 years old hanggang 70,” Dr. Palanca explained, adding they have all been isolated.

The remaining foreign visitors with negative findings have subsequently departed to Manila, while the local crew members have returned to the yacht.

Four of the foreigners and one of the two local crew members exhibit symptoms, according to Dr. Eunice Herrera, who manages positive coronavirus cases. Some individuals are asymptomatic, while others have mild indications.

“Sila po halos lahat ngayon ang laman ng ating isolation facilities,” she said.

10 samples for genome sequencing
At least 10 samples from individuals with positive results will be sent to Manila, where they will be submitted to genome sequencing to identify the variant at the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) or the Regional Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), he said.

“Sa 16 na ito, I think hindi bababa sa 10 ang puwedeng ipa-test sa genome sequencing. Ngayong linggo na ito ay ipapadala sa Manila for genome sequencing, at ite-test yan sa molecular lab either sa PGC o sa RITM,” he said.

The genome sequencing can determine what kind of COVID-19 variant their samples will reveal, he added.

Contact tracing being performed
Dr. Palanca further said that they have been conducting contact tracing since May 20 in response to reports that some of the tourists had arrived via the international airport in Puerto Princesa on May 14, ahead of their Tubbataha itinerary.

“May report na meron pong ilang turista na one day before dumating na kaagad dito kaya bini-verify namin kung saan yong lugar na yon at kung sila ba ay nagkaroon ng close contact sila sa mga establishments,” he said.

In the initial batch of 15 COVID-19 cases discovered in April on the same dive boat, Dr. Palanca previously stated that none of the tourists explored the city, as they all went directly to the yacht upon arrival at the Puerto Princesa International Airport.

Meeting with tourism sector
He also said they already had an emergency meeting with the City Tourism Office (CTO), the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in Palawan, and other stakeholders to discuss other concerns and possible recommendations.

“Ang isang recommendation ay since Level 1, hindi kami pwedeng maghigpit talaga na sabihin naming maghingi kami ng testing dyan pa lang sa paliparan ay hindi kami pwedeng humiling na magkaroon ng testing. Ang isang hinihiling namin hindi man sa company na ito na nag-handle ng tour na ito, kung pwede sa ibang mga tourism industries, kung pwede nga lang sa shipping industry, i-test nyo na lang muna, kahit antigen test, bago niyo isakay sa mga yate ninyo. From there, makita nyo na rin, ma-minimize nyo yung risk na magdadala sila ng isang COVID positive sa kanilang ship at hindi maapektuhan yung kanilang buong vacation,” he said.

Dr. Palanca emphasized that dive boat operators have the right to implement their own travel rules to avoid COVID-19-positive passengers from infecting others.

With the assistance of the tourism industry, surveillance must be increased so that positive cases can be identified early on passenger-carrying boats, especially if they are not dive boats and are merely regular vessels.

In addition, diligent surveillance must be undertaken at the international airport, as Alert Level 1 is “very relaxed” and strict regulations cannot be enforced without the consent of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) in the country.

Despite fresh reports of positive cases, Palanca claimed that restrictions will continue to comply to Alert Level 1 criteria, as the incidents in Tubbataha are “isolated cases.”

“It is still not possible to raise the level of restriction. Kung may maghihigpit man, depende na yan kung talagang pataas nang pataas ang kaso at itaas yung level ng Puerto Princesa which I think hindi pa naman mangyayari. Nakikita naman ng DOH na ito ay isolated cases dahil hindi naman sila nag-roam around sa Puerto Princesa at nakahawa ng marami. Walang dapat ikabahala, para sa aking sarili. Ang importante lang talaga, kung may sintomas ay magsabi sya sa kanyang hotel or sa tour guide para kung kailangan ay ma-test. Right now, wlang dapat ikabahala na baka magkaroon ng lockdown,” he explained.

“Ito ay isa lang (same boat na sinakyan nung naunang cases) and buti nagti-test sila sa kanilang yate. What if yung ibang mga ship na hindi capable, hindi nagdadala ng antigen test. Kapag nagkaroon sila ng sintomas at bumalik sa Puerto Princesa, so good luck,” he added.

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