FOLLOWING the Department of Health (DOH) announcement of the first confirmed case of the 2019 novel coronavirus acute respiratory disease (2019-nCoV ARD) in the Philippines on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, the public has raced to buy surgical masks, only to be turned down by many pharmacies in Cebu whose supplies had quickly run out.
Complaints of overpricing also reached the Department of Trade and Industry in Central Visayas (DTI 7), prompting the agency to issue a warning to pharmacies and medical suppliers not to take advantage of the sudden spike in the demand for surgical masks or face penalties.
A similar warning was issued by Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella who said he will not hesitate to order the closure of pharmacies in the city found overpricing this vital protective gear.
The City endorsed the names of seven pharmacies to the DTI for investigation after Cebu City Councilor Dave Tumulak, chairman of the committee on public safety, reported a drastic rise in the prices of regular masks and N95 masks sold in these pharmacies located in downtown Cebu City.
In Lapu-Lapu City, Mayor Junard Chan said he will not hesitate to file a complaint and revoke the business permits of pharmacies or stores found taking advantage of the high demand for masks.
“Some of them will withhold their stocks so people will be obliged to buy it for a higher price while our constituents are only making sure not to be infected with the virus and their family members,” said Chan in a mix of Cebuano and English.
The DTI said surgical masks should not be sold beyond the suggested retail price (SRP) of P8 per piece.
DTI 7 Director Aster Caberte Cebu urged consumers to report pharmacies and stores selling surgical masks beyond the P8 SRP by calling the DTI regional office at 09173215425 or DTI Cebu at 09178188419.
Ines Cajegas, Chief of the Consumer Protection Division of DTI Cebu, said violators will be penalized with a maximum fine of P300,000.
“Please request complainants of disposable face masks being sold at above SRP of P8 per piece to email a copy of the O.R., Invoice or Delivery Receipt with the complete address of seller to email@example.com,” Cajegas said.
Caberte also requested for more mask supplies from pharmacies in the region to address the shortage but only SouthStar Pharmacy, Mercury Drug and Watsons responded to the request by committing to provide more surgical masks.
Several pharmacies in Cebu have posted signs in their establishments declaring that masks were out of stock.
SunStar Cebu visited on Friday, Jan. 31, at least seven pharmacies, including three belonging to major chains, to confirm the shortage.
Drug store personnel said their supplies started to dwindle Thursday following the DOH announcement of the first confirmed 2019-nCoV ARD case in the country, a 38-year-old woman from Wuhan, China who traveled to Cebu and Dumaguete cities in the Philippines.
Although the patient is now confined in San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, jitters of how far the virus might have travelled continue.
The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) has issued a directive requiring all public utility vehicle (PUV) drivers to wear masks to protect themselves and their passengers.
The directive also requires PUV operators to equip their vehicles with hand sanitizers for the use of passengers.
Eduardo Montealto, LTFRB 7 director, said the order stemmed from a recent memorandum circular issued by their national office on Thursday, Jan. 30.
“The directive is already effective today because it is for the safety of everyone. We can never really tell because the drivers are exposed to a lot of passengers and if he has a sick passenger then he will not be infected,” Montealto told SunStar Cebu.
He explained the memorandum circular will remain in effect until health authorities declare the country safe from nCoV.
Around 32,000 PUV drivers, conductors and passengers ply the region’s roads daily with 12,000 of them based in Cebu.
Operators and drivers who are caught not following the order will be required to pay P5,000 as penalty.
In an interview, Cebu Integrated Transport Service Multipurpose Cooperative (Citrasco) chairman Benjamin Ryan Yu said they will comply with LTFRB’s order and have advised their member-drivers to wear a face mask everytime they start to pick up passengers.
Yu said some drivers complained that they found it uncomfortable to wear a mask while driving while others cited the current shortage of mask supplies in pharmacies.
“We are about more than a thousand drivers in a franchise so we need basically about a thousand also. But we can only get 50 pieces of masks,” Yu said.
For his part, Greg Perez of Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operators Nationwide (Piston)– Cebu Chapter said while he has no opposition to the order, he opposes the penalties and is asking LTFRB to reconsider.
“We have nothing against wearing face masks because that is for all our safety but why do we have to talk about penalties? Why is that now the rule?,” Perez said in Cebuano. Perez is asking LTFRB to reconsider putting penalties on their order.
In another interview, Jaime Bernadas, DOH-Central Visayas director, explained that the wearing of surgical masks is not recommended for the general population except for people who are immunocompromised such as those with severe diabetes, severe hypertension, severe immune-deficiency problems, and those with anti-cancer regiments.
Travelers coming in from abroad who have cough, fever and colds are also advised to wear surgical masks.
He also said there is only one recommended way of using the surgical mask. The white side, he said, is the absorbent part while the blue part is the plastic or rubber side which is not absorbent.
“Use the absorbent part to the side of your mouth so that the blue part which is water-repellent is the one exposed outside. If need be, put a lining of tissue paper beneath the mask and change it frequently,” Bernadas said.
The span of effectivity of a regular surgical mask, he said, is just for eight hours.
“If you use one mask for 24-hours, you are putting more risk to yourself than in the open air,” Bernadas added.
Meanwhile, the Mandaue City Health Office (MCHO) plans to purchase thermal scanners for all the government offices in the city.
“Only for those offices that entertain clients or patients,” said Rose Marie Ouano-Tirado, MCHO chief. (JOB, JJL, WBS, GCM, KFD, JCT / JKV)