By JULMUNIR I. JANNARAL | Managing Editor
Tawi-Tawi, the last frontier in the Philippine south and Bangsamoro region’s sixth province is no longer a COVID-Free province after a police officer arrived in the Port of Bongao and found positive of the dreaded pandemic Coronavirus 2019 on July 5.
The police officer being the first case of COVID-19 positive is designated as Patient No. TWT001.
Tawi-Tawi Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) has subjected to the usual health protocols and rapid antibody testing procedures the national government and military officials during their visit to the province on July 4, 2020.
Both the military and government officials strictly observe health protocols during their Tawi-Tawi visit to the province to welcome the first batch of Sabah deportees who arrived from Sandakan on board MV Antonia 1.
The Integrated Provincial Health Office (IPHO) Medical Team led by Dr. Sangkula G. Laja with concurrence from the provincial IATF chaired by Gov. Yshmael Mang Sali performed the rapid antibody tests and health assessment to Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana, IATF Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Filemon Santos and their staff.
Ministers Naguib Sinarimbo and Raissa Jajurie of the Ministry of Interior and Local Government (MILG) and Ministry of Social Services and Development (MSSD) respectively accompanied the said officials visit to the province to welcome the first batch of Sabah deportees who arrived from Sandakan on board MV Antonia 1.
According to Dr. Laja, the team conducted tests to 32 visitors coming from Zamboanga City and Metro Manila.
All who were subjected to health protocols had tested negative.
The health workers expressed appreciation to the officials for allowing themselves to be subjected to the health protocols of the province.
The Joint Task Force (JTF) Tawi-Tawi military commander was very proud to declare that Tawi-Tawi remains to be COVID-free.
“Tawi-Tawi remains to be COVID-free,” said Col. Arturo Rojas, JTF Tawi-Tawi Commander.
This is in addition to the vigilance of the health frontliners together with the local government units (LGUs) and other partners who are on guard round the clock strictly implementing the health protocols.
“Health frontliners together with the LGUs and other partners are on guard 24/7 in implementing safety measures to prevent the spread of the contagion in Tawi-Tawi,” Col. Rojas added.
This even led to the Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) commander to commend the Tawi-Tawi IATF on COVID-19 for their proactive approach in curbing the virus.
“I would like to personally commend Tawi-Tawi’s IATF on COVID-19 for the proactive approach in curbing the spread of the virus. Let us all continue to work together to flatten the curve of the contagion,” said Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, WestMinCom Commander.
Tawi-Tawi COVID-19 free no more
However both the declaration on Tawi-Tawi as COVID-19 free and the proactive approach of its IATF approach to curb the virus are now overtaken by the recent development when a police officer who arrived in the Port of Bongao last June 30 underwent Swab Test and the result came out to be Positive last July 5.
The contact tracing for this policeman is full of controversy as far as his movements are concerned.
Upon arrival at the Bongao Port on June 30 he immediately disembarked from the boat and proceeded to Bongao Port Terminal for health screening and assessment.
It was also found out that based on the manifest of the boat, TWT001 was not included in the passenger list, and that he did not undergo rapid testing prior to boarding the motor vessel in Zamboanga City.
Then he undergone rapid test (which later resulted positive); went outside the terminal without informing the authorities; rode on a tricycle going to Bongao town proper.
Then he photocopied his documents at a photocopier shop along Datu Halun Street in Bongao before proceeding to their boarding house located at Philippine Constabulary (PC) Compound, Barangay Poblacion also here in Bongao.
Upon confirmation of his positive rapid test result, the assessment team discovered that Patient No. TWT001 was not inside the port terminal and went to the authorities to look out for him.
The companions of Patient No. TWT001 then called him up to come back to the port terminal and he obliged by riding on a tricycle and went back to Bongao Port Terminal.
Frontliners in contact with TWT001 lucky to be negative.
At this juncture all the identified frontliners (LGU personnel), and all the other staff at the designated facility of Patient TWT001 whom he had contact upon his arrival were all lucky they were tested negative after the rapid test were conducted on them.
As of this writing on July 6, Contact Tracing according to Mobin Nuruddin Gampal, the Focal Person of Tawi-Tawi IATF COVID-19, is still undertaken and several quarantine are declared lockdown, and based on the same date the following protocols are observed momentarily: 1) Entry of LSIs and ROFs including Frontliners from Zamboanga City and nearby provinces is suspended until further notice; 2) All issued Certificate of Prior Coordination/Entry Permit/Acceptance Letter by the IATF Tawi-Tawi are hereby revoked and declared void; 3) No motor launch ferrying passengers shall be allowed travel to and from Bongao except for essential services; 4) Everyone is advised to Stay At Home and observe Health Protocols.
Finally who is this Patient with Case No. TWT001 the historic first COVID-19 case of Tawi-Tawi?
Profile of TWT001
Based on his profile he is 44 years old male and a personnel of Philippine National Police (PNP) assigned in Tawi-Tawi Provincial Police Office. He is an LSI with travel history starting from San Isidro, Quezon City to Zamboanga City. Then he traveled to Basilan Province and back to Zamboanga City and then to Tawi-Tawi.
He arrived at Bongao Port last June 30, 2020. He is asymptomatic and currently isolated in Bongao.
MP Alih urgent appeal
As this developed, Tawi-Tawi Member of Parliament Hadji Eddie Mapag Alih made an urgent appeal to the national government.
“Bigyan niyo pong kaming pansin nasa Southern part ng Pilipinas- Zamboanga, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi (ZamBaSulTa),” MP Alih said. (Please give us attention we in the Southern part of the Philippines, the ZamBaSulTa)
“Maybe it is unknown to you, these four provinces are considered the backdoor entry of Filipinos travelling from Sabah, Malaysia. Many are travelling illegally and cannot be monitored even by the government. They use wooden boats and dock at many ports in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi,” he said.
According to MP Alih when Malaysia declared a national lockdown, thousands of illegally documented Filipinos in Sabah escaped and travelled to BaSulTa.
Hence, the number of PUMs and PUIs in these provinces ballooned in a matter of days.
He said Malaysia now has the most number of positive cases for COVID-19.
As of 2015 Census the population of ZamBaSulTa are:
Zamboanga City- 917,477; Basilan- 346,579; Sulu-824,731; and Tawi-Tawi -390,715.
These population have increased already. Population combined is more or less 3-5 million.
MP Alih also revealed how hard is the access to health care that is difficult “for BaSulTa, we need to travel to Zamboanga City if cases of patient is severe already. For Basilan alone, we don’t have a Level 2 hospital in the province, cases need to be referred to Zamboanga City if it needs a level 2 facilities. What more for Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
As of this moment, he also disclosed they don’t have COVID test kits in ZamBasulTa region. Cases of PUMs/PUIs are increasing. Medical supplies are scarce, personal protective equipment (PPEs) are limited, some health workers and frontliners innovate already by making do it you can (DIY) PPEs. Are this enough to keep them safe? “The answer maybe yes, maybe not,” he said.
MP Alih have these litany of questions that must be answered by the national government.
“Do we have food? Yes may isda at gulay pa po kami.”
“Are people panicking? YES.
Why? Because there is no way for us to find out if these PUIs are positive or not. We don’t know if they are carrier or not. Hindi po kaya ng mga albularyo namin diagnose kung positive sa COVID o hindi.”
“Malayo man kami sa Metro Manila, pero napakalapit po namin sa Malaysia, bigyan nyo din po kami ng pansin, Pilipino din po kami,” MP Alih stressed.
Dr. George R. Lee is vindicated
To sum it up a respected and veteran doctor of Tawi-Tawi was very consistent in giving his medical advice to the people of Tawi-Tawi near or far using the social media so that his advice will reach to all whether they believe or not about the menace of this COVID-19 pandemic.
The Philippine Muslim Today tried to reach this medical doctor and he is no other than Dr. George R. Lee, Al Haj but he begged off not to be interviewed for he does not want to be misinterpreted as interfering with government doctors of Tawi-Tawi regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
At present he works in a private hospital in Bongao as a senior physician.
He told this editor that there is nothing to regret about since from Day 1, as a physician he is aware how deadly this pandemic that had spread worldwide affecting several people already.
Dr. Lee said he has foreseen that one day COVID -19 will arrive in Bongao. Every time he issued his warning, some think that he is merely “paranoid” about it.
Thus when July 5 arrived and the 1st COVID-19 Patient came to be in Bongao, the question now “who is paranoid?” Hence, Dr. Lee is vindicated according to a resident of Bongao who knows that Dr. Lee is just guided by his Hippocratic Oath as a Medical Doctor.
JULMUNIR I. JANNARAL