By Francis Allan L. Angelo
What really happened with the effort to establish two COVID-19 testing centers in Iloilo City that will serve Western Visayas?
The move was started by a group of medical professionals along with iAmUPHi led by Atty. Nellie Regalado, representatives from UP Visayas, West Visayas State University, Philippine Science High School Western Visayas, and other stakeholders.
March 10, 2020
According to Judge Cyril Regalado, the designated spokesperson of the group, they came together as early as March 10, 2020 to find ways on how to acquire COVID-19 test kits developed by the UP National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the team of Dr. Raul Destura, the Deputy Executive Director of the Philippine Genome Center in UP Diliman.
But even if the test kits were available, these cannot be used without an accredited laboratory in Iloilo City.
This was in response to the call of Dr. Roland Jay Fortuna, Iloilo City focal person for COVID-19, on how to purchase said test kits.
Heeding this call, on March 12, iAmUPHi, the alumni group of UP High School-Iloilo, reached out to fellow alumna Dr. Cynthia Palmes Saloma, Executive Director of the Philippine Genome Center (PGC).
Saloma said the city needed to establish a Department of Health (DOH) certified specialized laboratory and a Biosafety Level 2+ laboratory to run the tests using qRT PCR machines.
The PGC can then make available the test kits.
The group discovered the availability of RT-PCR machines in SEAFDEC, University of San Agustin (USA) C2B2 Laboratory, UPV-PGC, Western Visayas Medical Center (WVMC), and West Visayas State University Medical Center (WVSUMC).
Dr. Saloma then emailed five key scientists, medical specialists, and iAmUPHi to plan for the possibility of doing COVID 19 testing in Iloilo to help provide guidance to and hasten the LGU response against COVID-19.
On the same day, the plan was relayed to Mayor Jerry Treñas who immediately responded.
A meeting was set for March 16, at 2 p.m. iAmUPHi provided administrative support to the scientists. It identified the people whose expertise were needed to capacitate the laboratories.
During the March 16 meeting, Treñas specified the mission: to put everything in place ready for RITM to certify WVMC and WVSU-MC as COVID-19 Testing Centers.
The introduction of the participants revealed that Iloilo has some of the most qualified experts in Molecular Biology, Epidemiology, Bio-Chemistry, Biological Safety, Virology and related fields.
It was agreed that:
- A bio-hazard and capability assessment of the labs and evaluation of RT PCR machines will be conducted by certified Bio Safety Officers and the UPV Philippine Genome Center;
- The RT PCR machines from UPV and San Agustin will be loaned and transferred to WVMC and WVSU-MC, if necessary, to expand their capacity;
- Medical technologists from the participating hospitals will be sent to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) for training on COVID-19 testing;
- The medical technologists will also be trained on the use of the UP test kits by the training team of Dr. Raul Destura, developer of the UP test kits, once these kits receive FDA approval for commercial distribution; and
- WVMC and WVSU-MC be accredited as subnational laboratories.
Authorities found WVMC and WVSU-MC Laboratories to have satisfied the laboratory requirements for COVID 19 testing. It then proceeded to inspect and assess the WVSU MC lab.
Judge Regalado confirmed that they coordinated with Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas through Dr. Roland Jay Fortuna, the focal person on COVID-19 in Iloilo City and a member of IAmUPHi alumni group, on March 16.
During the meeting, Philippine Genome Center Visayas headed by Prof. Noel Ferriols said Iloilo has Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machines at UP Visayas, University of San Agustin, and the Western Visayas Medical Center.
These PCR machines are capable of running COVID-19 Test Kits developed by a team of UP experts headed by Dr. Raul Destura.
While the laboratories of UPV, USA and WVMC have the necessary equipment, expertise, and biosafety requirements to run the test, accreditation by the Department of Health is needed before they can start the tests.
The group also coordinated with the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) on the accreditation of Western Visayas Medical Center as COVID-19 testing center.
They also communicated with RITM and the DOH on the training of medical technologists who will handle the tests. The training will be done at the RITM starting March 23.
According to Regalado, they were allowed to send “at least two medical technologists” for the RITM training. But they decided that a team of two medical technologists from WVMC and three medtechs from West Visayas State University Medical Center were to fly to Manila on March 22, 2020 to undergo a three-day training and proficiency testing at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).
WVSU president Dr. Joselito Villaruz even rushed a letter seeking authorization to allow their personnel to join the training in support of the WVMC people.
Regalado said the main reason for the team composition is to avoid overwhelming the two WVMC medtechs when they conduct tests for the entire Western Visayas.
“They will be conducting thousands of tests if ever, so we need ample personnel who will conduct the tests. We don’t want them overwhelmed,” he said.
Due to the absence of commercial flights, businessman Alfonso Tan was requested to lend his private airplane to transport the medical technologists to Manila, to which he graciously obliged.
On March 19, iAmUPHi drafted two letter-requests to RITM for the training of the medtechs. One letter for WVMC and another for WVSU-MC.
The signed letter of WVMC came in first and was sent to RITM on March 20, 2020, a Friday, with a reservation that the letter-request of WVSU-MC will follow.
The WVSU letter was sent the following day, a Saturday. Meanwhile, iAMUPHi learned that the WVMC and another hospital in Bicol were to be commissioned by DOH as additional sub national laboratories.
RITM agreed to train at least two medtechs from WVMC. Considering that the WVSUMC letter was sent on a Saturday, March 21, it could not be acted upon until Monday.
The plane was scheduled to fly on Sunday. Pressed for time, WVSU-MC requested DOH Region 6 if it could also endorse WVSU-MC medtechs to travel to Manila as part of the WVMC team to augment the two slots approved.
The request was denied.
The UP group also wrote Engr. Efren Nagrama of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines pleading to allow the medtechs and laboratorians to fly to Manila.
“Because of the extreme urgency of the situation and the imperative need to expedite the training and accreditation of the medical technologists, they will be transported to Manila using a private plane owned by Mr. Alfonso Tan. In the interest of public health and the welfare of the people of Western Visayas, may we request that the said plane be allowed to transport the trainees to Manila and back to Iloilo,” according to the letter signed by Dr. Ray Alindong, co-chairman of the Iloilo City Task Force on Accreditation of WVMC as a Subnational Testing Laboratory.
Dr. Alindong also wrote President Rodrigo Duterte seeking his intercession and help in the accreditation of WVMC and WVSUMC laboratories. He also sought Clearance for the travel, training and certification of the five trainees from WVMC and WVSU MC who will be flying by private plane lent by a businessman.
Upon learning that only two medtechs were allowed to train, the UP group called Dr. Nick Lutero of DOH Central Office on March 21 for help.
In their statement, the UP group said “there was a compelling need to send out the medtechs ASAP as there was a long line of technologists from private hospitals undergoing training or waiting to be trained.”
There was unofficial advice that if the WVSU-MC medtechs can reach Manila, their training may be worked out so that they can reach the necessary proficiency level at the soonest possible time.
With this information, WVSU-MC decided to proceed with the travel. Brainstorming on the possible outcomes, the group then hatched an alternative, Plan B, that is to have the WVSU-MC medtechs train with Dr. Raul Destura of UP National Institute for Health NIH if they cannot be accommodated by RITM.
In Manila, members of the UP Silak Brotherhood and UP Silab Sisterhood organized to fetch the medtechs at the airport and provide for their transportation and lodging near the training center. It was arranged that personnel of the Philippine Navy will fetch and escort them.
Another committee was scrambling to secure flight clearances from the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) and the Office of Civil Defense.
Meanwhile, Daily Guardian learned that Iloilo City Rep. Julienne Baronda was also making her parallel efforts by asking, thru a letter, DOH Sec. Francisco Duque on March 10 to help in the WVMC accreditation.
Baronda sent a follow-up letter to Duque concerning WVMC accreditation on March 15 and received a reply three days later from Assistant Sec. Kenneth Ronquillo who assured that WVMC will be accredited along with the activation of sub-national level laboratories.
On March 21, she sent another letter to Sec. Duque requesting the latter to accredit WVSU-MC as a COVID-19 testing center.
It is also worth noting that WVSU president Dr. Joselito Villaruz also sent a March 21 letter to Baronda asking for her help in their accreditation and training of their medtechs.
With the assistance of the Presidential Consultant for Western Visayas Jane Javellana, the flight was cleared for Sunday March 22, at 2 p.m.
In sum, a six-person team was supposed to fly to Manila onboard Mr. Tan’s plane.
Javellana said they asked for Mayor Jerry Treñas’ help in ferrying the team to Metro Manila considering that air travel is restricted because of the lockdown.
Javellana said the interagency task force on COVID-19 in Manila already approved and cleared the travel of the two medtechs of WVMC and four support staff.
The Office of the Presidential Adviser for Visayas also helped secure clearances from the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines and other concerned offices.
Javellana said confusion may have occurred when DOH regional director Marlyn Convocar issued a certification dated March 21 stating that only two medtechs are allowed to fly out of Iloilo and three personnel of Iloilo City Rep. Julienne Baronda.
“Maybe the names of the two medtechs and the staff of Cong. Baronda as indicated in Dr. Convocar’s letter were the ones reflected in the manifesto. But the names of the six persons were already submitted to the national IATF, the Office of the Civil Defense, and CAAP. Suddenly, only the names of two medtechs from WVMC and the support staff of Rep. Baronda were in the manifesto minus the people from WVSU and the Philippine Genome Center-Visayas,” she added.
In a statement, Rep. Baronda denied that her staff boarded the plane saying her people were already in Manila waiting for the WVMC medtechs.
Baronda said her team will provide transportation and accommodations to the medtechs.
Daily Guardian erroneously reported that Baronda’s staff boarded the plane to Manila and we apologize to the lady for this.
But why did the two WVMC medtechs board the plane used by Iloilo 1st district Rep. Janette Garin and not that of Mr. Tan?
Javellana is also at a loss on what changed the arrangements. What she knew was that Rep. Garin arrived in Iloilo at around 11 a.m. along with two RITM specialists who helped set up the WVMC laboratory.
Javellana said DOH-6 director Convocar never informed them of the changes in the manifesto and the flight even if the local IATF already agreed on the six-person team.
Taking cue from Convocar’s memorandum, CAAP decided to bar the three other medtechs and one support staff from WVSU and the Philippine Genome Center-Visayas from leaving Iloilo.
Javellana said it was Mayor Treñas who requested Mr. Alfonso Tan to provide the plane and it was clear from the start that it was the same plane that will transport the medtechs to Manila.
On March 23, a certain Cheska Lim, who claimed to be a cabin crew of the plane that was to bring the medtechs to Manila, said their flight was delayed because of Iloilo first district Rep. Janette Garin.
Lim told Daily Guardian that they were supposed to fly out of Iloilo around 2 p.m. Sunday but Garin asked them to wait for her.
Lim said the flight was moved to 4 pm and by that time the medtechs refused to fly with her because she was supposed to be on quarantine as she had just arrived from Metro Manila on the same day.
Lim’s account was posted on Daily Guardian’s Facebook page with the headline “HIJACKED?” referring to Garin’s unexplained presence and role in the medtechs’ trip to Manila.
In her statement, Rep. Garin said she “never hijacked a plane and will never do so.”
Garin also confirmed that she was accompanied by two RITM specialists who set up the WVMC lab.
“I arrived Iloilo yesterday (March 22) onboard an 11-seater plane, lent to me for the whole duration of this crisis by the private sector. We have NO CABIN CREW but got 2 pilots and an airplane technician. With me were 2 RITM Specialists I borrowed, to immediately set up the WVMC Lab. Our target is to make it COVID- operational in less than 24 hours. I was under strict instructions to carry only medically important equipments, devices and supplies. The only non-COVID supplies I brought were chemotheraeutic drugs and anti- rejection medicines requested by some patients. The day before, CAAP gave me a departure time of 9 am and return time of 4 pm,” Rep. Garin said.
But in an interview with Bombo Radyo-Iloilo Tuesday morning, Rep. Garin said the plane she used was owned by a “relative”.
Rep. Garin also said in her statement that she was asked if she can accommodate Cecille Resol and Kathleen Torilla of WVMC who will undergo COVID proficiency evaluation at the RITM for four days, to which she agreed to.
“At around 3 p.m., I was informed by Dr. Convocar that three more medtechs will be coming onboard and some supplies were to be loaded. I did not object as this is a time where we help each other. I informed Director Convocar to do the coordination as the manifesto and allowed luggages (sic) are all cleared by Manila. We have exhausted all means to include the 3 in the manifesto but were declined,” she added.
Rep. Garin said she was not aware that the four luggages loaded in the plane were personal stuff of Iloilo City Rep. Julienne Baronda.
“I thought these were stuff sent by WVMC thru us. I was still discussing the set-up at WVMC when these were loaded. The three chests we brought were samples I secured (with) prior permission.”
The lady lawmaker also denied knowing Cheska Lim who posted in her Facebook her account of how the WVSU personnel were left out of the flight.
“I do not know Cheska Lim and I never asked her to wait, nor is she in the manifesto. All medical responders, and supplies are heavily vetted. Corresponding documents are attached before this is allowed. The manifesto is controlled by National Government Executive Offices. When I agreed to additional three passengers, the airport control told me they were under strict instructions that only those in the manifesto will be allowed to board. Any changes in the manifesto have to come from the President’s office. To this, my apologies to the other health workers. Now, let us move on and work on more important matters – SAVING HUMANITY. Keep safe and God bless,” Rep. Garin said.