THE Mactan-Cebu International Airport (MCIA) in Lapu-Lapu City is still implementing Executive Order (EO) 17 in which the swab testing-upon-arrival policy of Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia is stipulated, as the arrivals of Cebu-bound international flights resumed on Sunday, June 6, 2021.

International flights have resumed landing at the MCIA after the national government ended the eight-day diversion of inbound flights for the airport to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which was seen as a rebuke of Garcia’s testing and quarantine policy that differs from that of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The cap for arriving international passengers at MCIA is still at 300 per day in line with the availability of Cebu’s hotel rooms for quarantine. MCIA is operated by GMR Megawide Cebu Airport Corp. (GMCAC), airport subsidiary of Megawide Construction Corp.

However, officials of the Department of Health (DOH) central office said while discussions on Cebu’s testing and quarantine proposal are still ongoing, the IATF’s policy of testing overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs) on the seventh day from arrival remains in effect.

DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, in a virtual presser on Monday, said only the swab test conducted on the seventh day from the arrival of an OFW or ROF is currently paid for or subsidized by the government.

As for their swabbing on arrival at the Cebu airport, however, it is also free. According to an April 4 report by SunStar Cebu, the DOH in Central Visayas, with the Office of the Presidential Assistant for the Visayas (Opav) and Project Balik Buhay (PBB), started the free swab testing of ROFs and OFWs on March 31 to “unburden” the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration of such bills.

Following Capitol

In a virtual briefer on Monday, June 7, Garcia said the MCIA officials follow the Province’s lead. She said the Provincial Board (PB) Ordinance No. 2021-04 that mandates the policy to conduct swab tests upon arrival of Cebuanos from international flights is the “recognized local law of the land, unless it is otherwise declared ‘ultra-vires’ by a proper court.”

“So they all agreed that they would have to follow the PB ordinance because they do not want to break the law or violate the law. That is for Cebuanos. For non-Cebuanos, we wait. If they insist that they be kept here, well, we shall be increasing the (quarantine) hotel rooms,” Garcia said in her online program “Ang Probinsyana.”

Andrew Harrison, GMCAC chief executive adviser, said based on their records, MCIA received two incoming flights from Doha, Qatar and Singapore on Sunday, June 6.

For now, Garcia has ordered the Department of Tourism (DOT) and the DOH to inspect all available quarantine hotels in Cebu to determine if they can expand their services to cater more ROFs and OFWs.

“Upon proper inspection of both DOT and DOH within the week, we might expand to over 5,000 rooms,” Garcia added.

Quarantine hotels in Cebu could only accommodate around 2,500 rooms in 35 accredited quarantine hotels for OFWs and ROFs, as of May 13.

But Garcia is also checking with the Commission on Audit (COA) on why the National Capital Region (NCR) has a higher cap on accomodations in quarantine hotels compared to that of those in Cebu.

The governor is also hoping that the eight local lawmakers’ manifesto of support for the Cebu Province’s testing and quarantine protocol would have a “bearing” on IATF’s decision-making process.

The signatories were First District Rep. Eduardo Gullas, Second District Rep. Wilfredo Caminero, Third District Rep. Pablo John Garcia, Fourth District Rep. Janice Salimbangon, Fifth District Rep. Vincent Franco Frasco, Sixth District Rep. Emmarie Dizon, Seventh District Rep. Peter John Calderon and Ako Bisaya Party-List Rep. Sonny Lagon.

Central office’s stance

Cebu Province’s test and quarantine policy differs from that of the IATF as it conducts swab testing upon the arrival of the OFW or ROF at MCIA.

Vergeire said the national government sanctions only the swab testing on the seventh day of the facility-based quarantine.

“What has been sanctioned by the government is the Day 7 testing. We need to talk about Day 1 testing. Discussions are ongoing because the Office of the President has already received the recommendations on the proposal of Cebu Province,” Vergeire said.

Per IATF protocol, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa) pays for the reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test and quarantine expenses of OFWs.

The Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), on the other hand, subsidizes the cost of the RT-PCR test of its members and beneficiaries of PhilHealth members.

Those who are not members of PhilHealth, like some ROFs, pay for their tests, Vergeire said.

A memorandum that Garcia issued on May 20, 2021, a copy of which was furnished to SunStar on June 5, requires two swab tests to be conducted on OFWs and ROFs.

The first is upon arrival at the MCIA and the second on Day 7 from arrival, which will be conducted by the local government unit.

The passengers will only stay in a hotel for a maximum of three days while waiting for their test results.

If negative, the OFW or ROF will be allowed to go home and continue to undergo home quarantine for the remainder of the 14 days but will be swabbed again by their local government units (LGUs) on the seventh day to comply with the requirement of the IATF. But for non-Cebu residents, they will be turned over and will be subjected to the protocols of their respective LGUs of destination.

Individuals who test positive for Covid-19 will have to be quarantined. Asymptomatic patients will undergo isolation at a quarantine facility for 10 days, and 14 days for those who are symptomatic.

The May 20 memorandum amended Garcia’s May 13, 2021 memorandum, which specified the arrival protocol for transiting OFWs and ROFs, and reiterated the arrival protocol for Cebu residents based on EO No. 17 and Provincial Ordinance No. 2021-04.

DOH 7’s viewpoint

In another press conference on Monday, June 7, DOH Central Visayas officials clarified that there is no “significant difference’’ if an OFW or ROF is tested on arrival or on the seventh day.

Dr. Mary Jean Loreche, DOH 7 spokesperson, said despite the IATF’s policy, the Provincial Government’s EO 17 is “not a violation, but an innovation.”

President Duterte had asked the DOH to critique Cebu’s testing and quarantine protocol.

During the virtual presser, Loreche said the President was “receptive” during their May 31, 2021 meeting at Malacañang that was also attended by Garcia, Opav Secretary Michael Lloyd Dino and PBB chairman Edmun Liu. The group elaborated on Cebu Province’s protocols on OFWs and ROFs.

Aside from the fact that there is no “significant difference” when the test will be conducted, Loreche said they told the President that EO 17 was issued for “compassionate” reasons, allowing the OFWs or ROFs to go home to their families as they have been away for a long time and some of them who still have jobs abroad have only a little window to visit their loved ones. (ANV, JKV, RDR / SunStar Philippines)