By Jonathan Hicap
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that the quarantine facility in the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa should only be for inmates with mild to moderate cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Harry Tubangi, ICRC health in detention program manager, told the Manila Bulletin that “only mild to moderate cases are to be isolated in these facilities. Severe cases should be immediately transferred by the authorities to the nearest referral hospital.”
The ICRC has worked with the Bureau of Corrections in testing inmates at the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong and setting up a 160-bed isolation facility in the NBP medium security camp known as Site Harry.
Site Harry currently holds 47 COVID-19 positive inmates from CIW who were transferred from Mandaluyong in three batches.
BuCor announced on April 18 its first COVID-19 positive inmate in a 72-year-old CIW prisoner, with a history of diabetes, who was diagnosed with pneumonia a week before and was admitted at the Sta. Ana Hospital.
“Following our work and ongoing support to detention authorities in the fight against COVID-19, the ICRC was informed of a COVID-19 positive case by CIW officials. In coordination with the CIW officials and in line with the Department of Health COVID-19 testing protocol, we reached out to the Philippine Red Cross (PRC), our primary partner in the country, to conduct testing in the CIW on the afternoon of 18 April for an initial emergency response,” said Tubangi.
Three days later, BuCor revealed that 18 CIW inmates and one BuCor medical staff tested positive for coronavirus after being exposed to the first COVID-19 case. The 18 were transferred to NBP on April 21.
According to Tubangi, before the confirmation of coronavirus cases at CIW, “the ICRC had already been working with the Bureau of Corrections to set up a 160-bed isolation facility in the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa. The facility named Site Harry was turned over to BuCor on April 30 along with donations of materials for the use of the site and the prison staff.”
“We also provided infection prevention and control training for the BuCor emergency response team or the team transporting confirmed COVID 19 positive detainees and staff managing the isolation center,” he added.
BuCor Director General Gerald Bantag and Boris Michel, ICRC head of delegation in the Philippines, inaugurated the ICRC-funded NBP isolation facility on April 30.
Before this, ICRC convened a meeting on April 22 at NBP, together with representatives from BuCor, World Health Organization (WHO), Department of Health (DOH) central office and epidemiology bureau, and Muntinlupa City Health Office “to assess the capacity, specific risks in places of detention, and to activate inter-agency collaboration for COVID response in prisons.”
The NBP quarantine facility, Tubangi said, is “fully equipped with medical equipment and hygiene materials while its staff were trained on infection prevention and control, and provided with personal protective equipment. Testing was also done on 150 detainees and jail staff with the support of the PRC.”
The ICRC also provided CIW with tablet devices and prepaid load to allow inmates to communicate and “reconnect with their loved ones who might be worried about their situation. They have been able to start using these devices starting April 23.”
The transfer of COVID-19 positive CIW inmates to NBP has sparked protests from the Muntinlupa City government. Mayor Jaime Fresnedi, the city council, and Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon opposed the move and warned that it could pose health risks to other NBP inmates, BuCor employees, and residents near the facility.
Tubangi said “the decision to transfer the COVID-19 positive detainees from CIW to the NBP isolation facility was made solely by the BuCor.”
When asked how safe is the NBP quarantine area or Site Harry, Tubangi said it “is an isolation complex that has areas separating contacts, suspects, probable, and confirmed cases. Although it is within the medium security compound, Site Harry has its own fence and gate. The space inside the NBP is quite expansive.”
“Site Harry was set up with ICRC support following infection control and prevention guidelines from the DOH and WHO. Especially now that Site Harry has been turned over by the ICRC, it must be noted that the responsibility and management of this isolation site lies with BuCor,” he said.
He added, “It is important to emphasize that the authorities are responsible to address the COVID-19 cases in detention facilities. The national guidelines are important to halt the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s congested jails and prisons and allow for closer coordination between detention and health authorities, but concrete commitment and coordinated action from the concerned authorities are essential to materialize the guideline’s procedures.”
Tubangi declined to comment on the issue of transferring positive inmates to NBP, saying, “We are not in a position to answer this as the decision to transfer the CIW detainees to NBP was a decision made by the BuCor, which is having talks with the city government. It must also be noted that the responsibility over and management of Site Harry lies with the BuCor.”
Besides the 47 CIW inmates at NBP, there are three BuCor employees who tested positive for COVID-19, and three inmates–2 from CIW and one from NBP–died of the disease.
Meanwhile, the Muntinlupa City Health Office reported that confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city rose to 164 on May 4 from 154 on May 3 including 52 patients who have recovered from the disease and 22 deaths. The tally does not include the 47 CIW inmates transferred to NBP.