Acting Health Secretary Janette Garin and Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang need not undergo quarantine despite their visit without protective suits to Caballo Island, where 133 Filipino peacekeepers from Liberia are under quarantine, Malacañang said yesterday.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the two officials followed health protocols under the guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“And they continue to act responsibly in the light of the overriding objective to ensure that the Philippines remains Ebola-free,” Coloma told a news briefing amid calls for Garin and Catapang to undergo quarantine as well.
Garin explained yesterday that they saw no need to wear hazardous materials or hazmat protective suits during the visit.
“The use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is only necessary when the patient is showing signs and symptoms of Ebola,” she explained.
Some health professionals who worked in Ebola-hit countries developed the disease several weeks after returning to their homes in the United States and Spain. This prompted the decision to place the Filipino peacekeepers under 21-day quarantine.
More than half of nearly 6,000 fatalities in the world’s worst recorded Ebola outbreak were from Liberia.
Coloma said Garin and Catapang were just doing their job.
All actions of both the Department of Health (DOH) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are geared toward ensuring that the Philippines remains free from Ebola, and in compliance with President Aquino’s directives, Coloma said.
“The DOH is tasked with ensuring that all concerned strictly follow the established health protocols. The AFP continues to provide communication and recreational facilities to make the peacekeepers’ stay on Caballo Island pleasant and comfortable,” he said.
Garin defended her decision to visit the 132 peacekeepers in Caballo, saying it is her duty to ensure the troops are being afforded proper facilities and medical treatment.
“It is also my duty to allay the fears of our peacekeepers and help address their medical concerns. We held a discussion with our soldiers and answered the questions they raised,” Garin said.
If they see any risk of getting infected with Ebola virus, Garin said they would not have visited the peacekeepers.
She said the DOH and the AFP have been working together to address the concerns of the peacekeepers.
Garin insisted that no quarantine rules were violated during the visit since the military and doctors are allowed in the quarantine area.
Before meeting the peacekeepers, Garin said a short meeting was held to orient Catapang and the military medical corps.
“Guidelines on the appropriate use of PPEs were reiterated to keep everybody in the loop. The importance of not putting a stigma on people coming from Ebola-affected countries was emphasized,” she added.
Garin also defended the DOH and the AFP’s decision to transfer one of the soldiers to the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Alabang, Muntinlupa, saying it was a precautionary measure although it turned out the peacekeeper involved was suffering from malaria.
“The move may not be popular, but the issue here is saving lives,” she said.
Catapang, for his part, said he is willing to undergo quarantine if asked to do so by the DOH.
Speaking to reporters in Zamboanga City, Catapang said he is ready to follow any decision health officials handling the matter would make.
“We want to set the protocol. I was with Secretary Garin during the visit and if she says that we should undergo quarantine, we will follow orders,” he said.
Catapang stressed the visit to the quarantine area in Caballo Island was meant to assure the public that they should not worry about the Ebola virus.
Catapang said no protocol was broken during the visit because it was sanctioned by the DOH. He said the DOH has already explained that Ebola patients could only become contagious when they start to show symptoms.
When asked whether the families of the peacekeepers would be allowed to go to the island, Catapang said it would be up to the DOH to decide on the matter.
While insisting that there is nothing wrong with his visit to the peacekeepers, Catapang said he is putting on hold his plan to invite the media to the quarantine site.
“We might add more anxiety and misunderstanding. For the meantime, we will just hold it,” he said.
Catapang, who shook hands with President Aquino last Monday during the defense department’s anniversary and yesterday during the Chief Executive’s send-off to Singapore, said he would not visit Caballo Island without purpose.
“I might disturb their ishing. I told them I want to hold a contest on autobiography writing, best essay, best poem and best photograph. It’s like saying it’s more fun in Caballo Islands,” Catapang remarked.
To keep the troops physically fit during their 21-day stay at Caballo, the AFP launched a sports fest that would also help uplift their morale. – Alexis Romero, Jaime Laude, Jess Diaz, Mayen Jaymalin, Roel Pareño