(In celebration of Women’s Month, Manila Bulletin is publishing stories featuring women who have made outstanding contributions to the country or to their communities.)
Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary and Spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire is a very familiar face in the country’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.
For more than two years now, she has appeared on television, online, print and social media almost every day to announce the latest numbers related to Covid-19 – new infections, recoveries, deaths. On top of that, she also has appeared in various media platforms to explain facts and debunk myths on the virus, and announced the government’s numerous responses against the unseen enemy.
Being the spokesperson of the DOH— the agency that has been on the forefront of the country’s efforts against the Covid-19 crisis—is no easy task. Vergeire believes that telling the true situation, even if it is a grim one, is always the right thing to do because this can save lives.
“As a spokesperson of the department, breaking ‘bad news’ to the public, and saying ‘no’ has been a regular challenge, but in as much as it is difficult, I do it with utmost pride because this is what sticking to science and truth means. For when we want to gain, regain, and grow trust, we need to speak of truth,” she added.
The role of the DOH spokesperson “entails a heavy responsibility, more so in the context of the pandemic,” said Vergeire. “Beyond soundbytes, I need to give our kababayans the right information, so that they can make correct and lifesaving decisions,” she said.
When this position was offered to her in 2020, Vergeire admitted that she hesitated to take the job.
“I was hesitant at first since the virus is one which we have not yet seen and is evolving quite fast increasing the risk it can pose to the Filipinos. Even if you are a doctor by profession, the virus made it seem as if we were all moving in the dark,” she said.
Even if the job is tough, it never crossed her mind to quit. She said that her career in public health service “has been more challenging and more significant than ever” when the Covid-19 affected the Philippines.
“As the DOH spokesperson during this pandemic, it fell upon my shoulder to ensure that the direction of our response is properly communicated to the public while staying true to our responsibility to protect everyone,” she added.
An early riser
“I always start the day with a prayer. Most of the time, I have media interviews from as early as 6 or 7 a.m. I attend all meetings, media engagements, and work up to 6 p.m., and sometimes, I extend up to 8 p.m.,” she said.
“My team would often convene several groups of experts from different fields to systematically appraise different studies, and develop algorithms and the living CPGs (clinical practice guidelines),” said Vergeire.
Even after a long tiring day at the office, sometimes Vergeire grants media interviews at night. “When I get home at night, I also attend to media requests for interviews that are usually aired live in the evening,” she said.
A glimpse of young ‘Rosette’
Vergeire, also known as “Rosette” to family and friends, is the third child in a brood of six.
“My mother was a practicing lawyer and often, she’d come home with bags of vegetables as professional fee from clients who didn’t have enough to pay. I would accompany her to hearings at times. Meanwhile, my father was the very first barangay captain of our community, a post he held for many years.
Vergeire said she had two options for her college course at that time: political science or zoology. Eventually, she got accepted in Zoology and was able to earn her degree at the University of Sto. Tomas in Manila.
“One day, my mother decided to take me somewhere. What I thought was just a quick trip, turned out to be my first step into this world of medicine and public service! I sat down for my entrance exam and in a few hours, I was enrolled in the De La Salle College of Medicine in Cavite, and had my dorm ready,” she narrated.
Aside from finishing her degrees in Zoology and Doctor of Medicine, she earned her Master’s in Public Health (MPH) degree at the University of the Philippines in Manila.
Entering the world of public service
Vergeire has much work experience under her belt. She first started working in the Marikina City Health Office in 1996 and stayed for 11 years. “The experience opened my eyes to the difficulties of our kababayans to have access to equitable, affordable, and quality healthcare. Right then and there, despite the daily challenges and my relative inexperience – I knew I needed to help and change the status quo,” she said.
She then entered the DOH in 2007 as a medical officer in the Health Policy Development and Planning Bureau and was eventually appointed Director III in 2015.
She was also assigned as Officer-in-Charge Deputy Director General for Field Regulatory Operations in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November 2015 and stayed until 2016.
After her stint in the FDA, she transferred back to the DOH and held various positions. Fast forward to today, she is now the Undersecretary of Health of the Public Health Services Team and the official designated spokesperson of the DOH.
Despite her busy schedule, Vergeire finds time to spend quality time with her loved ones—especially her three sons: Keno (currently employed in a private company), Miggy (law student), and Joaquin (medical student).
“The Covid-19 pandemic has been truly extraordinary, due to both the sheer scale and the immediacy of the required response. None of us could have expected a crisis of this scale. Even after a year of battling the pandemic, we are still reeling from its impact,” she said.