By Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporter

HEALTH authorities will send doctors to Cebu City, which has reverted to a strict lockdown, to help control a spike in coronavirus infections, according to the Department of Health (DoH).

The city’s healthcare system “is overwhelmed with patient load,” Health Undersecretary Mara Rosario S. Vergeire said on Sunday, citing reports from the agency’s regional officials.

“The doctors will not be permanently deployed to Cebu City but will only provide relief similar to previous temporary assignments,” she told reporters in a Viber group message.

The doctors who will be sent to the central Philippine city are rural health physicians, “ensuring that the municipalities they serve will not be left doctorless during their assignment,” Ms. Vergeire said. “Health care services will continue.”

“COVID-19 cases (have) reached a critical point in Cebu City and the department is grateful to those who have risen to this patriotic call,” she added.

She said so-called doctors to the barrios are usually deployed to the most remote areas, where access to healthcare is a challenge.

Cebu City had the highest number of cases with 4,490 as of June 27, followed by Quezon City with 3,151 and Manila with 2,270, according to the data from the Health department.

DoH on Friday said the city had an infection rate of 32.8%, much higher than 7.2% in Metro Manila and the national rate of 6.8%.

The cities of Cebu and Ormoc, and the provinces of Leyte and Samar were considered COVID-19 hotspots due to a surge in cases.

DoH reported 653 new coronavirus infections on Sunday, bringing the national tally to 35,455.

The death toll rose to 1,244 after eight more patients died, while recoveries rose by 258 to 9,686, it said in a bulletin.

Of the new cases, 485 were test results from the past three days, while 168 were reported late, the agency said.

Meanwhile, Doctors to the Barrios batches 36 and 37 condemned the planned assignment, saying rural doctors had not been consulted and informed through writing.

They also criticized the lack of protocols for the deployment, which they said “contradicts the thrust of the Doctor to the Barrios program,” which was the government started in 1993 to address the lack of doctors practicing in rural communities.

Under the DoH order, rural health physicians assigned in Western and Central Visayas must report for duty in “unspecified private hospitals in Cebu City as part of the COVID-19 response,” the doctors said in a statement at the weekend.

Those assigned in Western Visayas will stay in Cebu City from June 30 to Sept. 30, while those in Eastern Visayas were expected to report from June 26 to July 30.

“The absence of proper communication, justifying the temporary reassignment of rural health physicians serving in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas to serve in private hospitals in Cebu City is a clear violation of the Magna Carta for Public Health Workers,” they said. “This reassignment shall be made, ultimately, in the interest of public service.”

The doctors demanded a dialogue with DoH regional offices.

“The Department of Health must uphold its mandate of serving the Filipino people, especially the poor and the marginalized in the peripheries of society, with justice,” they said.

“We hope that DoH will consider this before it is too late, before the apathy and lack of accountability by their leadership completely smother the flames of passion and service of an entire generation of doctors,” they added.

Meanwhile, DoH said two cases had been removed from the recovery count, while one duplicate was taken out of the infection tally. “The total cases reported may be subject to change as these numbers undergo constant cleaning and validation,” it said.

Of 24,137 active cases, 95.7% were mild, the agency said. It added that there were 69 laboratories licensed to test COVID-19 samples.