Gag order for NCMH woes | Inquirer Opinion

Gag order for NCMH woes

/ 04:08 AM April 14, 2020

On Black Saturday, GMA 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.


Would that such quick action by the DOH also applied to the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH), the grim situation of which had made it to the news days earlier than East Avenue’s, thanks to another GMA reporter, Atom Araullo. But perhaps because NCMH’s story does not involve a pile-up of dead bodies for now, the response to its woes has not been as urgent or transparent.

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 as to the substance of Avila’s disclosures? Cortez said his action was not to hush things up. “We are not covering up. Why? We submit reports to the DOH every day. There is an existing policy.”


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.

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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!)”

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, COVID-19 deaths, National Center for Mental Health, personal protective equipment

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