MATUMAL ang labas ng balita. Sa ganyang sakunang pangkalusugan, dapat arawaraw may update para malaman ng pambansang pamunuan at LGU kung anong tulong ang kailangang ibigay. Sabi naman ng NCMH na malimit naman daw sila magbigay ng report sa Department of Health at DoH ang tagapagbalita sa publiko.
Gag order for National Center for Mental Health woes
On Black Saturday, GMA-7 newscaster Arnold Clavio exploded a bombshell when he posted information he said he got about a hospital where dead bodies were piling up in the hallways due to a lack of body bags, and the hospital staff had been allegedly ordered to stop the tally of COVID-19 deaths. Following swift public furor, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III immediately denied there was any instruction for hospitals to stop counting fatalities from the outbreak, and the East Avenue Medical Center eventually admitted it was the facility in question. However, the bodies were not in the hospital hallway, it said, but in the morgue hallway. Per a CNN Philippines interview with the hospital spokesperson, as of 4 p.m. Saturday, “6 bodies remain uncollected in the morgue.”
It’s likely that, because of the public uproar that prodded health authorities to spring to action in a matter of hours, the hospital’s appeal for more protective equipment for its personnel, as well as body bags and a mobile freezer to augment its morgue facility, would be addressed soon.
The situation at the country’s largest facility for mental health patients came to light when its chief administrative officer Clarita Avila disclosed that, as of April 5, 34 of the NCMH staff were positive for COVID-19, 28 of them doctors and nurses. In addition, 297 of its employees became PUIs or patients under investigation while 181 were PUMs or patients under monitoring. Of the center’s 83 psychiatrists, 50 were under self-quarantine. Three patients had also died of the disease.
Already, 30 percent of NCMH’s more than 1,000 nursing staff no longer report for work as they are either PUIs or PUMs, or are simply afraid to go to work for lack of personal protective equipment, said Avila. Appealing for help, she noted that the facility only had 100 pieces left from 586 PPEs, all of them from private donors. That appalling situation should have roused Duque et al. to address the matter pronto. Instead, the response to Avila’s appeal was a gag order.
In a letter posted on the hospital’s Facebook page, NCMH head Dr. Roland Cortez told Avila to stand down: “This is to inform you that you are not the spokesperson of NCMH, you are not a member of the NCMH COVID-19 committee and not even a member of the expanded management committee of the hospital.” Avila was ordered to “refrain from issuing statements about COVID-19 because this function is under DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.’’
But if reports are submitted to higher-ups every day, the situation under Cortez’s watch has apparently gone unresolved—or been kept under wraps—such that, on top of Avila having to turn whistleblower with her disclosures, an “open letter’’ from a health care worker in the NCMH backed up her claims with more damning details. The letter lamented, among others, the failure by hospital management to provide protective equipment and food to its frontliners, and that Cortez allegedly refused to implement skeletal workforce arrangements until the situation turned for the worse.
The situation at the NCMH is dead-serious, and demands utmost transparency and decisive action from health authorities to contain the spread of COVID-19 among a particularly vulnerable set of people. But how does gagging Avila protect the interest of the NCMH patients, or its workers? That desperate frontliners have to resort to airing their sentiments anonymously can only speak of the dysfunctional state of affairs at the facility. A doctor even had to appeal to Vice President Leni Robredo to include the NMCH in the routes serviced by vehicles for health care workers.
Even before the pandemic, there have been reports about the dilapidated facilities and insufficient budget for the 90-year-old NCMH, the country’s main center for mental health care services catering to an average of 3,000 daily inpatients and 56,000 outpatients a year.
Now, the facility appears to be in even more dire straits, with crude rank-pulling and the suppression of information complicating its own fight against COVID-19. How ironic that the NCMH’s 24/7 crisis hotline slogan does not seem to apply to its own staff, who have to signal for outside help. The slogan? “Tara, Usap Tayo! (Come, let’s talk!)”
National Center for Mental Health chief denies cover-ups on COVID-19 cases
“It’s not a gag order, but to inform her of the policy on COVID-19,” Cortez told ABS-CBN News.
“We are not covering up. Why? We submit reports to the DOH everyday. There is an existing policy naman. We are just doing our job to protect the interest of our patients,” he added.
Avila was earlier quoted by a news network (not ABS-CBN News) as saying that over half of the psychiatrists at the NCMH were under quarantine due to COVID-19.
“Well, obviously, it’s a cover-up of his mismanagement of the crisis and denying the public the right to information of what’s happening here at NCMH, aside from suppressing my freedom of speech,” Avila said in a text message to ABS-CBN News Thursday.
Cortez denied curtailing Avila’s freedom of speech, saying the Mandaluyong-based facility reports to the DOH and the local government.
“Wala kaming kinu-curtail. Yung transparency of cases were submitted to the DOH and the local governments because these should be reported,” Cortez insisted.
As of Thursday, Cortez said the hospital has a total of 39 COVID-19 cases, 30 of which involve NCMH employees, and 6 are psychiatric patients. Three other patients died, he said.
The NCMH chief also admitted that 565 employees of the facility are on home quarantine after being classified as persons under investigation (PUI), and persons under monitoring (PUM).
Of the said figure, 29 are resident doctors, and 28 are psychiatric consultants.
LACKING MEDICAL GEAR AND THREATS?
Avila also claimed earlier that the NCMH only had 50 sets of personal protective equipment, and that medical staff and employees rely heavily on donations for protective gear and food.
Cortez said the facility has a total of 3,300 PPEs that include recent donations from the DOH.
“What’s really depressing, sinasabi niya, we only rely on donations? It is not true. It is not true that we only have 50 PPEs. We already also offer food for them because this is an era where all of us have to help,” the NCMH chief said.
Some posts on social media carried calls to help frontliners at the NCMH, particularly PPEs and meals to be sent to the NCMH Physicians’ Association Inc.
Doctors, however, declined to discuss the initiative.
“I’d like to apologize. I cannot grant the interview because DOH and NCMH have media protocol,” Dr. Agnes Casiño, board member of the NCMH-PAI, said in a text message.
One employee, who requested for anonymity, claimed Cortez tried to threaten doctors asking for donations.
“He threatened na kakasuhan yung mga doktor na mag-donation drive. Bawal daw yun,” an employee from the NCMH said.
Cortez, however, said he is only following rules and policies for donations.
“We are not stopping them, because that is their prerogative. Kung may association ‘yun, okay yun,” he said.
“Huwag nila ipa-deliver sa NCMH (yung donations). We will be accountable to COA (Commission on Audit) in the future,” he added.
NO SKELETAL WORKFORCE
The employee who requested anonymity also claimed that Cortez did not allow a skeletal workforce for psychiatrists and psychologists.
“Parang, we are helpless talaga. It fell on deaf ears. Hindi pinag-skeletal. Mga suggestion namin, rejected lahat. Kaya ayan, marami na kaming COVID positive,” the employee told ABS-CBN News.
“Ngayon, nung kumalat yan, may nagreklamo. Tsaka, niya pinayagan yung mga skeletal,” the employee added.
Cortez said he only disagreed with a skeletal workforce for those working on mandatory face-to-face treatment for patients. Those working on psychiatric cases, he said, were allowed.
The NCMH chief also assured that blood tests, X-rays, and swab tests are done on in-house patients, along with the daily disinfection of their areas. A triage area has also been set up at the entrance of the institution.
One of the areas of the hospital was converted to an isolation area for in-house patients who were considered as PUIs, Cortez said.
NCMH doctors and medical staff, meanwhile, may choose to go on home quarantine, or be housed at the city’s isolation area at Nepthali Gonzales Integrated School, just a few meters away from NCMH.
Cortez called on employees of the NCMH to refrain from creating confusion and spreading fears to the public.
“I can assure families of patients who are here at the NCMH that we are doing our best to help them fight COVID-19,” he said.