DOH sends more contact tracers to Bontoc after detection of new UK COVID-19 variant cases

Michelle Abad

HIGHER DAILY CASES. Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire gives updates on the status of the novel coronavirus in the Philippines in this February 21, 2020. File photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

(UPDATED) The Department of Health is conducting intensive contact tracing in Bontoc after 12 cases of the UK variant of COVID-19 were confirmed in the Mountain Province town

The Department of Health (DOH) said on Saturday, January 23, that it has deployed 50 more contact tracers to Bontoc town in Mountain Province to help track down all persons who interacted with 12 locals who were found to have the more contagious B117 or UK variant of COVID-19.

In a Laging Handa briefing on Saturday morning, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that aside from its office in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), the department also got reinforcement from its offices in the Ilocos Region, Cagayan Valley, and Central Luzon to augment the number of contact tracers deployed to Bontoc this weekend.

“We were able to coordinate with Regions 1,2,3, and of course, CAR region, and we deployed around 50 additional contract tracers to Bontoc to conduct intensive contact tracing this Saturday and Sunday,” she said in a mix of Filipino and English.

On Friday evening, January 22, the DOH confirmed 16 new cases, bringing the total in the country to 17. Twelve of these cases were in Bontoc town.

Vergeire said on Saturday that one of the Bontoc cases is an individual who arrived in the Philippines on December 13, and tested negative for the coronavirus. The next day, the person went to Bontoc where the individual celebrated the holidays with family members, and attended a local ritual.

“Dito na po nagsimula ang mga sintomas pagkatapos nito. Pero kinakalap pa natin ang mga tamang impormasyon para mai-relay natin sa publiko na maayos (They experienced symptoms after this. But we are still collating the correct information so this can be properly relayed to the public),” she said.

Of the 12 cases in Mountain Province, 7 are male and 5 are female. Three are aged below 18, and another 3 are above 60. At least two barangays in Bontoc are on lockdown as of Saturday, the DOH-Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) announced.

Vergeire said she learned upon checking with local officials that Bontoc has been on lockdown for the last two weeks, and that she recommended that the lockdown is extended for two more weeks to confine the COVID-19 cases to a specific area.

As for the two cases in overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from Lebanon who also tested positive for the UK variant of COVID-19, the health department said they coordinated with Philippine Airlines and concerned agencies to get hold of the passenger manifest and to expand contact tracing.

The DOH said of the 16 new cases, 3 have already recovered, but they are still being monitored.

DOH taps NBI to track down passengers

Vergeire said the DOH tapped the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to assist in finding two remaining passengers of Emirates Flight No. EK 332, the flight from Dubai that on January 7 brought home the Filipino who is considered the first B117 COVID-19 case in the country.

The first case, or “patient zero,” has since tested negative.

Kausap ko po ang isang executive ng [Department of Justice] and kagabi lang po naisumite ko sa kanya ang mga pangalan nitong dalawang hinahanap pa natin na mga individuals. And the executive committed that they will referring this to the NBI para matulungan na mahanap itong dalawang individuals na ito,” Vergeire said on Saturday.

(I spoke to an executive of the DOJ and last night I submitted the names of the two individuals we are searching for. The executive committed to referring this to the NBI so they can help us find these two individuals.)

Vergeire said that the DOH’s primary objective is finding the individuals, conducting further contact tracing, and improving the tracing system. Sanctions for the passengers at large may come afterwards, the undersecretary said.

The DOH will tap the NBI to help search for passengers in flights with known cases if they are unreachable after one to two days.

“Makikita natin ang sistema natin ay kailangan pa nating ma-improve ang system. So kailangan improve the system and give initial warning for the succeeding passengers para po dito sa complete details na ito. At sa susunod po ay magsa-sanction na tayo,” she said.

(We can see that our system needs improvement. We will give an initial warning for the succeeding passengers on providing complete details. Next time, we will sanction them.)

Vergeire also further explained the need for another round of testing – on the 5th day of an inbound passenger’s arrival – to add another layer of protection against the spread of COVID-19 in the country. She said the viral load of COVID-19 patient, whether that person is symptomatic or asymptomatic, is highest on the 5th to 7th day.

She said health authorities have observed in several cases that passengers who test negative upon arrival to the country later test positive when they return to their hometown.

Responding to questions, Vergeire also said that the DOH laboratory experts panel approved the Philippine Red Cross’ COVID-19 saliva test, but on the condition that this be limited to PRC labs for now.

“Kailangan pa nating hintayin ‘yung resulta naman ng validation test ng RITM para magamit ng ibang labs sa bansa (We have to wait for the validation test of the RITM so it can be used in other labs in the country),” she said.

The UK variant known as B117 was first detected in the United Kingdom in September 2020. In November, around a quarter of the reported COVID-19 cases in the country were found to be of the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (READ: Coronavirus variants: Why being more transmissible rather than more deadly isn’t good news)

Worldwide, more than 97.7 million have been infected by the coronavirus, and at least 2.1 have died from the virus as of Saturday. In the Philippines on Friday, January 22, the DOH confirmed 509,887 cases, 10,136 deaths, and 467,720 recoveries. There are 32,031 active cases in the country. –

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers overseas Filipinos, the rights of women and children, and local governments.