By Vann Marlo M. Villegas,
Gillian M. Cortez Reporters,
and Genshen L. Espedido

HEALTH authorities on Wednesday reported 16 new cases of novel coronavirus infections, bringing the total in the Philippines to 49.

“The Department of Health (DoH) and deployed surveillance teams are now conducting extensive information-gathering and contact-tracing activities on the new cases,” it said in a statement.

It also said doctors were continuously monitoring all patients to ensure there won’t be any health complications.

Cases Nos. 25 to 28 and Nos. 30 to 33 were in stable condition, DoH said. Patient No. 29, a known contact of patient No. 9, had been intubated and had underlying cardiovascular and endocrine conditions, it added.

The Health department was seeking to address the capacity of hospitals to respond to the contagion, Health Assistant Secretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said at a news briefing.

They were also reviewing their policy on how patients are admitted — who should be confined and who should be sent home, she said. DoH would probably issue the guidelines tomorrow, she added.

Ms. Vergeire said 96 Filipino overseas had been infected with the novel coronavirus — 80 from the M/V Diamond Princess cruise ship, six from the M/V Grand Princess cruise ship docked in the US, five in Hong Kong, three in Singapore and two in the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) sent off 442 of the 445 repatriates from Japan who had been quarantined at New Clark City (NCC) in Capas, Tarlac, DoH said in the same statement.

Of the 445 Filipinos from the M/V Diamond Princess cruise ship from Yokohama, two crew members had tested positive for the disease and were sent to the Jose B. Lingad Memorial Regional Hospital, DoH said.

Close contacts of the two confirmed cases will undergo additional 14-day home quarantine and will be monitored by health offices in their cities. The remaining repatriate was left in NCC awaiting lab results, it said.

Meanwhile, Senator Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said the Department of Health should coordinate with private hospitals in the admission of people suspected to have been infected with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

“Under an emergency situation the government can order private hospitals to also prepare for COVID-19 patients,” he said at a separate briefing. This would allow private hospitals “to prepare isolation wards and to expect the worse.”

Also yesterday, President Rodrigo R. Duterte ordered the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) to shoulder the cost of testing for COVID-19.

“The President recognizes that everyone in the country is concerned about COVID-19 and the threat this poses to the health and lives of our loved ones, especially vulnerable individuals like senior citizens,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Alexei B. Nograles said in a statement.

“Given this, the last thing we want is for our citizens to worry about medical costs and expenses,” he added.

PhilHealth will also cover quarantine and isolation costs, he said.

All Filipinos are automatically enrolled under PhilHealth as mandated by the Universal Health Care Act.

Meanwhile, the House health committee approved a motion urging PhilHealth to waive the fee it charges for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

Committee head and Quezon Rep. Angelina D.L. Tan said the government should cover all the expenses of the patient.

Ms. Tan also urged DoH to issue the rules that will enforce the law on mandatory reporting of some diseases.

Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III should issue the rules within the week because it will guide the agency in responding to the virus outbreak, she told a news briefing.

Meanwhile, Iloilo Rep. Janette L. Garin questioned the exemption given by the Foo and Drug Administration to the University of the Philippines in making COVID-19 test kits.

“I fully support our Filipinos scientists, but we are very much afraid that in our desire to have a testing kit, we now forget the safeguards that should be installed,” she said at yesterday’s House hearing.

She noted that the FDA is the only Philippine agency that can ensure the safety and efficacy of medicines, vaccines and devices. Mr. Duque said he would ask the FDA to respond to Ms. Garin’s query.