Airports on guard for coronavirus as health authorities urge vigilance

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 22 2020 09:38 AM | Updated as of Jan 22 2020 12:33 PM

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MANILA -- The Philippines started screening passengers arriving at the capital's main airport for fever and flu symptoms, a health official said Wednesday, joining the rest of the world in heightening measures to prevent the spread of a new virus from China.

Authorities wearing face masks manned thermal scanners at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Those who show fever and flu would be submitted to further quarantine checks, said Health Undersecretary and Spokesperson Eric Domingo.

Outside the capital, quarantine officers also checked passengers' temperatures manually, said Bureau of Immigration port operations chief Grifton Medina.

"On the lookout na tayo sa lahat ng flights coming from China... Talagang bantay-tutok po tayo sa mga papasok," Domingo told DZMM. 

(We are on the lookout for all flights coming from China. We are keeping a close eye on everyone who will enter the country.) 

The new strain of coronavirus has claimed 6 lives, infected more than 300, and caused alarm because of its genetic similarity to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which killed 650 people across China and Hong Kong in 2002 to 2003. 

A 5-year-old boy from China who arrived in Cebu City last week tested positive for coronavirus, the strain of which was still unknown, the health department said Tuesday. 

Airlines will check passengers for fever and flu during flights, especially those from China, so that those who show these symptoms could be quarantined after landing at airports, Domingo said. 

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DON'T PANIC

The new pathogen -- which has also been reported in Thailand, Japan and South Korea and Taiwan -- is "difficult" to detect because it will "probably manifest exactly the same" way as the common flu, cases of which usually increase in January and February, said Domingo. 

However, there is a "very, very low" probability that the virus could infect people with no history of travel to China, he said. 

The government is "more prepared" to handle the new virus than it was during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, when there were no isolation rooms yet and protocols for handling cases, Domingo said. 

He also urged the public to wear face masks, wash their hands frequently, and cook meals well. 

"Panic is not going to help. What we want is to be vigilant," he said.

TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS?

Medical staff carry a box as they walk at the Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China Jan. 10 2020. Reuters Stringer/File

Hundreds of millions of people are crisscrossing China this week in packed buses, trains and planes to celebrate Saturday's Lunar New Year with relatives.

Cebu and Aklan airports host flights from Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the Novel Coronavirus was first detected, said Domingo. 

Asked if the health department would push for travel restrictions on China and Hong Kong, he said, "Not at this time." 

"This is an international decision... Masyadong maraming (there are too many) repercussions: what about workers, what about trade?" he told ABS-CBN News. 

FIRST CASE UNDER PROBE 

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The Philippines' first suspected Novel Coronavirus patient, the boy from Wuhan, remains in isolation at a hospital and is coughing a bit, but no longer had fever, said Domingo.

Test results from Australia to determine the coronavirus strain are due out Thursday or Friday, he said.

"Clinically po, magaling na po iyong bata. Hinihintay lang po natin iyong testing ng kaniyang dugo," he added. 

(Clinically, the child is already well. We are just waiting for the results of his blood test.) 

The DOH is also monitoring 3 other individuals from China who had flu-like symptoms when they landed at the Kalibo airport in Aklan, Health Secretary Francisco Duque earlier said. 

Two of the 3 tourists were allowed to go to Aklan's Boracay Island because their symptoms were only "flu-like," while the other one was admitted at a hospital overnight and discharged the next day after their fever abated, said provincial health officer Dr. Cornelio Cuachon. 

With reports from Lady Vicencio, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse