SPECIAL REPORT: Barangay Health Workers: village frontliners in the fight against COVID-19

CAGAYAN DE ORO (MindaNews / 19 September) —  Inside the two-storey barangay hall of Gusa, village chief Marlon Tabac and his crew of volunteers were busy packing food aid for fire victims in July when he received a call from the City Health Office (CHO) informing him that a 28-year-old factory worker, a resident of Santo Niño village, had tested positive for SARS-CoV 2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Tabac divided his volunteers into two groups — one to continue repacking of food packs that would be distributed to the fire victims the next day, the other to accompany him to a meeting with the CHO who came to inspect the village of Santo Niño, where the COVID-19 patient lived.

A health worker checks the temperature of a resident in Barangay 35 in Cagayan de Oro City Monday (13 July 2020) after the city government locked down the community when one of its residents tested positive of COVID-19. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

Seeing how densely populated the village is, the doctors from the Cagayan de Oro Health Office decided to put the community under lockdown.

“That was our first experience with a COVID-19 case in our barangay. We were scared but we decided to implement what we have been trained to do,” he said.

Tabac said that after consultations, he and the doctors decided on where to put up the checkpoints to regulate the exit and entry of some 60 families living inside Sitio Santo Niño.

“Since many of our volunteer health workers are familiar with the village, we set up the checkpoints along the pathways and roads the residents are expected to pass,” Tabac said.

After a day’s work, the checkpoints were set up and the entire Santo Niño village was sealed.

By nightfall, teams of tanods (village watchmen) on board small trucks sprayed the roads and pathways with disinfectants.

Tabac said the next day, barangay health workers started tracking down the persons the 28-year-old COVID-19 patient came in close contact with and found eight family members and seven neighbors.

All 15 contacts were fetched by a team of volunteer paramedics from the City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office and brought to an isolation unit for a 14-day observation, he said.

Tabac had a total of 30 volunteer health workers and tanods deployed in the quarantined Santo Niño Village in Barangay Gusa during the lockdown.

First test

A few days later, a small community in Purok A in the same barangay was also placed  under a 14-day lockdown when a resident tested positive.

Luisa Valdez,  50, a barangay health worker who serves as contact tracer,  recalls how they handled residents who wanted to get out of the quarantine area. A male resident insisted on getting out of the quarantine area during the lockdown. 

A City Health Office worker administers a rapid antibody test on one of the residents of Barangay Carmen, Cagayan de Oro on Thursday, June 25, 2020. The city government and the Department of Health plan to test 500 pre-selected individuals in Barangay Carmen where most of the COVID-19 cases in Cagayan de Oro reside. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

“He became unruly, insisting he wanted to go out to buy something. We stood firm that he could not get out without approval from the City Health Office,” she said.

To show the unruly resident that they meant what they said, they parked their motorcyles around his car to ensure he could not use it, and called for police reinforcement.

She said the unruly resident was pacified and went back inside his house.

“He thought he could intimidate us because we were all women volunteers. He made a mistake,” Valdez smiled.

Foresight and Force multipliers

Dr. Lorraine Nery, City Health Officer, said volunteer barangay health workers and paramedics in the city’s 80 barangays are their “force multipliers” in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They fill the gaps if we lack doctors and nurses,” she said.

Nery said the local government of Cagayan de Oro  mobilized Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams (BHERTs) in each of the city’s 80 villages on January 29, 2020, in anticipation that COVID-19 will spread throughout the country.

“I am glad that we had the foresight. When COVID-19 came to to Cagayan de Oro we were ready,” she said.

Cagayan de Oro’s mobilization of its BHERTs came 47 days ahead of the national government’s order to mobilize BHERTs.

A barangay health volunteer watch a resident signs a logbook before they can get out from their village in Zone 4, Barangay Carmen, Cagayan de Oro after health officials lockdown the village after one of the residents was found infected by the coronavirus. Photo by Froilan Gallardo

On March 16, Local Governments Secretary Eduardo Ano signed Memorandum Circular 2020-018, mandating local governments to mobilize BHERTs in their localities in the fight against COVID-19.

The memorandum said barangay chairs are to organize a minimum of one BHERT for every 5,000 population. Each BHERT, appointed by the barangay chair, is to be composed of an executive officer, a barangay tanod, and two barangay health workers, one of them preferably a nurse or a midwife.

Nery said their BHERTs are equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as surgical gowns, googles, masks and gloves.

She said the PPEs are purchased by the city government or the barangay.

Each BHERT, she explained, was given a week-long training on how to handle COVID-19 cases and other COVID-19-related tasks.

Lessons learned

Lessons have also been learned from previous experiences in other villages in  handling COVID-19 cases such as Pinikitan in Barangay Camaman-an when Patient no. 6873, a 69-year-old storekeeper died at the Northern Mindanao Medical Center on April 18, the first case of local transmission of COVID-19 in the city.

Health workers conducted a massive house-to-house search to check on neighbors and other persons in close contact with Patient 6873 who was  found to have tested positive for COVID-19 when the results of his lab test were released on April 23.

NO ENTRY. Residents barricaded a road leading to Ramonal Subdivision in Cagayan de Oro City on Saturday, April 25, 2020 as news spread about the death of a COVID-19 patient nearby. Residents set up barricades at every street in Barangay Camaman-an overnight. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

Residents who were untrained to handle quarantine protocols set up makeshift checkpoints everywhere in Pinikitan.

It took a while before the BHERT in the barangay and city government paramedics were able to restore order.

BHERTS are supported by another set of volunteers whose task is to fetch suspected COVID-19 patients from their residences.

Volunteer responder

At a parking lot beside City Hall, volunteer Aga Salvia dons her PPE gear at the back of their rescue ambulance. 

Salvia is a volunteer medical responder for the City Disaster Risk Reduction and Managmeent Office tasked to fetch at the airport or seaport Locally Stranded Individuals (LSIs) and Returning Overseas Filipinos (ROF) from Manila and other areas.

Donning the PPEs takes time as one has to ensure everything is in order to prevent getting infected.

After she and the rest of her team are done wearing their PPEs, they gather around to listen to instructions from their supervisor, Nick Jabagat.

A frontliner from the Cagayan de Oro Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office adjusts her safety goggles over her personal protection gear as she and other team members prepare to fetch returning Iligan residents at the Laguindingan Airport in Misamis Oriental on August 20, 2020. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

On this particular day, the supervisor told them their mission is to fetch LSIs and ROFs who will be arriving at the Laguindingan Airport.

“This is scary but we have to do this,” Salvia said. “But we are very careful,” she stressed.

She narrated that many of the returning residents and workers were found to have been infected.

She said that during their shifts, they would fetch at least two groups of passengers in Laguindingan airport and Macabalan seaport.

At the end of the day, Salvia said, they take a bath in the comfort rooms of City Hall before going home to their families.

As of September 18, Cagayan de Oro City recorded 519 COVID-19 cases or 23.4% out of Northern Mindanao region’s total of 2,220, according to the Department of Health’s Center for Health Development in the region.

Out of 519 cases, 295 are returning locally stranded individuals and overseas Filipinos while 224 are classified under “local cases”

The city’s 519 cases include 293 recoveries, 16 deaths, 28 still admitted and 182 outpatients. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)

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