“May COVID pa po ba, Doc?”

DATU HOFFER AMPATUAN, Maguindanao del Sur (MindaNews / 22 January) – “May COVID pa po ba, Doc (Is COVID-19 still around, Doctor)?” Dr. Bidasari Sulaik recalls having been asked this question by residents in this sixth class municipality. 

With the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the return of face-to-face classes and office-based work, a number of residents here and in other areas have become complacent about observing minimum health protocols such as wearing of facemasks and washing of hands. Social distancing is often ignored as residents crowd in public places such as markets and restaurants, and occasions such as weddings, birthdays or fiestas.

Health workers of the rural health unit in Datu Hoffer, Maguindanao del Sur. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

But Dr. Sulaik, chief of the Rural Health Unit (RHU), maintains that COVID-19, a disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2, “still poses a clear and present health danger” although “morbidity is becoming less since a lot of people have been injected against COVID-19.”

Sulaik noted that COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths in their town and adjacent municipalities have been on the downtrend with the availability of the vaccines and people availing of the free vaccination. 

As of January 9, out of  the total 5,284 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the 36 towns of Maguindanao del Sur and Maguindanao del Norte since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Datu Hoffer recorded only 60 positive cases with no deaths, according to the report of the Integrated Provincial Health Office (IPHO). 

The two Maguindanao provinces posted a total of 185 COVID-19 deaths, it added.

In the two Maguindanao provinces, of the 922,872 inoculation target for residents five years old and above, 547,552 persons or 59% are fully vaccinated, while 263,266 or 29% are not vaccinated. 

In Datu Hoffer town as of January 9, 10,626 or 54% of the 19,663 target population for COVID-19 vaccination are fully vaccinated while 2,185 are partially vaccinated.

For herd immunity to be achieved, at least 70 percent of the target population must have been inoculated, according to the standard set by the national government. 

Datu Hoffer RHU workers continue to encourage the 6,852 unvaccinated residents to receive the vaccine against COVID-19.

Sulaik admits that resistance among residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine remains significant despite the massive information awareness, including house-to-house visits by the local government unit and non-government organizations following the roll-out of the nationwide vaccination drive in early 2021.

May mga residenteng kahit malapit na nga sa health center natin, ayaw pa rin magpabakuna. Nakakalungkot (There are residents near our health center who refused to be vaccinated.  It’s saddening),” the doctor stressed.

The poor turnout for vaccination is also because there are residents who don’t believe that COVID-19 is real, and those who believe that vaccination kills or turns people into zombies, Sulaik said. 

Fake news 

Ranila Moctal, a COVID-19 survivor from Barangay Daladap, Mamasapano town, tested positive of the disease after giving birth to their third child in 2020. The baby was not infected. 

But Ranila was hesitant to be vaccinated against the infectious disease “because it will slowly kill me or might turn me into a zombie.” Ranila also believed claims that the vaccine was haram (forbidden).

“The fake news on COVID-19 really got me. I initially believed them to be true,” she said in Filipino.

But after listening to a local religious leader and health workers, she was convinced that the COVID-19 vaccine was safe.

“The vaccine will protect me from getting seriously ill,” she learned. 

Sulaik also observed that a number of residents may have already been “overfatigued” by the COVID-19 pandemic and some are “no longer afraid of the virus.” 

But she said they will continue to urge residents to get vaccinated, especially since COVID-19 vaccines are now readily available at the RHU.

The Datu Hoffer RHU gets its supply of COVID-19 vaccines from the Maguindanao IPHO in Shariff Aguak, which is less than two kilometers away.

A man walks past the Integrated Provincial Health Office in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao del Sur in this photo on January 10, 2023. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Sittie Husaifah Baliwan, acting municipal head nurse, said local health workers continue to visit communities to encourage residents to get vaccinated.

Religious leaders have been tapped to encourage residents to go for vaccination. 

The RHU is also using social media to reach far-flung communities with access to the internet, usually served by piso wifi vendos, she added

As a result of their continued awareness campaign, Baliwan said that on a weekly basis, an average of 10 individuals come to the health center for vaccination. 

But accessibility to the GIDA areas in the town for the COVID-19 information awareness and vaccination drive remains a challenge for the local health workers.

The farthest GIDA can be accessed by foot or horse in one day, Baliwan noted. 

Following the nationwide roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccination in March 2021, rural health workers here went to the extent of conducting health drills to encourage constituents to get vaccinated.

Carved out of Shariff Aguak and Datu Unsay towns in 2009, Datu Hoffer, as it is popularly known, is a sixth class municipality with a population of 26,660 (2020 census) in 11 barangays, five of which are considered GIDA (geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas).

The COVID-19 pandemic was a huge challenge for the town, given the lean workforce of its rural health unit (RHU) which is composed of a doctor, five nurses, five midwives, 11 barangay health workers and 11 barangay nutrition scholars.

Tough time

Baliwan recalled that the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 was a tough time for the local health workers. But that period also taught them valuable lessons and prompted them to come up with innovative approaches. 

She said the RHU’s lean staff, along with the other departments of the LGU comprising the local Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19, had to go out and explain, in the Maguindanao language, the disease and its symptoms, the isolation for positive patients, the need for the lockdowns or movement restriction, and the contract tracing, among others, to contain the spread of the virus. 

The RHU calibrated its response with medical drills, taking inspiration from the popular earthquake drill, to encourage residents to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

In earthquake drills, participants are usually taught what to do when a tremor occurs: duck, cover, hold, do not panic. Their health drills in the communities, taught residents what to do to avoid infection or what to do when infected with the virus. 

“We conducted health drills in the communities, aside from house-to-house visits, as one of our ways to fight COVID-19,” Baliwan said. 

A blue plastic drum for handwashing donated by the Philippine Red Cross was a key equipment that the rural health workers deployed during the health drills they conducted in the communities.

A health worker inspects a handwashing facility at the rural health unit in Datu Hoffer, Maguindanao del Sur on January 10, 2023. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

“Washing of hands with soap is an effective way to ward off the COVID-19 virus. That’s what we taught our constituents. This simple, cost effective practice can save lives,” she recalled.

Aside from the plastic drum, the International Committee of the Red Cross also extended at least P21,000, coursed through the IPHO, for each town in Maguindanao as mobilization fund to fight COVID-19, Baliwan said. 

A health worker carefully pulls out COVID-19 vaccines at the rural health unit in Datu Hoffer, Maguindanao del Sur on January 10, 2023. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Baliwan said they also demonstrated during the health drills what to do when a household member exhibits COVID-19 symptoms and when one tests positive of the infectious disease. 

Sulaik appreciated the help extended by non-government organizations (NGOs) and humanitarian agencies, including the Philippine Red Cross and International Committee of the Red Cross, to the local government in fighting the pandemic through various means: providing them vehicles to transport the vaccines, storage allowances to health workers, which provided them vehicles to transport the vaccines, freezers for storage, allowances to health workers and food during vaccination drives, among others. 

“Nagpapasalamat kami sa mga NGOs, mahihirapan kami without their help kasi yung resources at manpower namin limited,” she said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic remains a public health threat, she expressed hopes the support extended by NGOs and aid agencies for the health and welfare of the locals will be sustained. (Bong Sarmiento / MindaNews)