COVID-19 cases in PH reaches 396 as Duque denies firing RITM head

Photo: Mark Demayo/ABS-CBN News
Photo: Mark Demayo/ABS-CBN News

The number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the Philippines has jumped to 33, with a total of 396 confirmed cases recorded so far, the Department of Health (DOH) announced today.

In a text message sent to The Philippine Daily Inquirer, DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said there were 16 new cases recorded today, as well as eight new deaths. Meanwhile, one more patient has recovered, bringing the total number of recoveries to 18.

Vergeire said the increasing number of cases could be attributed to the increased capacity of testing laboratories, GMA News reports, with the Philippines now able to conduct 1,000 tests a day after several additional laboratories recently became operational. However, most tests are still being conducted by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Mandaluyong, which is capable of conducting up to 600 tests a day.

Meanwhile, DOH Secretary Francisco Duque today denied rumors that he had fired RITM’s head, Dr. Celia Carlos. Netizens had claimed Carlos was being fired by Duque after supposedly refusing to prioritize the processing of COVID-19 tests of politicians and other VIPs over those of healthcare workers and patients — a claim that remains unsubstantiated, but echoes angry accusations that have ricocheted around social media in recent days.

Read: Philippine health chief ‘OK’ and working while awaiting COVID-19 test results

Some netizens also shared a memo, apparently signed by Duque, appointing Dr. Nestor Santiago as the “OIC-Director” of RITM, though it makes no mention of removing Carlos.

In an interview with radio station DZMM, Duque said his assistant made a mistake in the wording of the memo, and that he had just ordered that Santiago be given oversight over Carlos.

“No, that’s just a mistake,” he said of the leaked memo. “This was admitted by my executive assistant. They wrote the designation ‘director.’ What I want is for him [Santiago] to have oversight so that he could help Director Celia Carlos in expanding our testing capacity [at the RITM].”

A statement released today by the DOH on its Facebook page said essentially the same thing, noting that Santiago will be responsible for guiding and managing the RITM’s “testing capacity to public and private laboratories, and attend[ing] to coordination with other agencies.”

Online rumors have swirled for more than a week that politicians are being prioritized for testing over healthcare workers and patients, with particular ire directed at Senators Tito Sotto and Francis Tolentino, both of whom tested negative for the novel coronavirus.

Image: Francis Tolentino/FB
Image: Francis Tolentino/FB

The latter, a neophyte lawmaker, posted a photo himself on Facebook while he was being tested by a healthcare worker on March 17, attracting mostly negative comments from people who felt he used his position in order to be tested by the DOH first. However, Tolentino said today that it was not a DOH staffer who tested him.

Sotto, on the other hand, said his first test was not from the DOH, and that the “instant” test was administered to him by a friend, CNN Philippines reports. After that first test came out negative, he went to the DOH for another test and is currently waiting for the result.

Their testing came after several senators attended a briefing where an invited speaker who later tested positive for COVID-19 was also present. Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, who was at the briefing, also subsequently tested positive, though it remained unclear whether he or anyone else in attendance later had contact with senators Sotto and Tolentino.

Rumors of “VIP testing” have led many netizens to call for mass testing, causing the hashtags #MasstestingnowPH and its Filipino translation, #Masstestingngayonna, to trend on Twitter over the weekend. However, the DOH’s Vergeire rejected the calls in an interview with radio station DZBB today, saying that mass testing is not efficient or advisable given the scarcity of the DOH’s resources.

Image: DOH/FB
Image: DOH/FB

An ambiguously worded statement released by the DOH today, meanwhile, officially rejected accusations of VIP testing, while also appearing to acknowledge it in the same breath.

“[T]here is no policy for VIP treatment and specimens are being processed on a first-in, first-out basis. With courtesy accorded to officials holding positions of national security and public health,” the statement reads.

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