Focus on the Forgotten: Sad state of the NCMH

Screengrab from GMA News Online Youtube video.

MEDIA COVERAGE of the pandemic has rightly placed medical professionals and all health care workers front and center in the news. The group’s vulnerability to the disease is obvious as they provide key services and hold the first line of defense against the spread of the disease.

Cheers to 24 Oras for looking into the plight of health workers who are continuing to care for an even more marginalized group, the patients in the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) in Mandaluyong City. The institution, which is under the Department of Health (DOH), is the country’s largest hospital for mental health patients and serves as a special training center for specialists.

In its April 8 newscast, Atom Araullo reported the high infection rate among the employees of NCMH; As of April 5, the facility had recorded 34 COVID-19 patients, 28 of whom are employees. There are also 297 employees tagged as persons under investigation (PUI) and 181 as persons under monitoring (PUM) (current categories for PUIs are suspect case, probable case and confirmed case). The report referred to a letter written by an anonymous hospital worker calling attention to the plight of the hospital.

Claire Avila, NCMH’s chief administrative officer, told Araullo that few employees are able to report because of the disease and the difficulties of transportation. She also said that there is a lack of protective gear for medical workers, that the hospital needs 250 protective suits each day and that they had only 100 left. 

The report added that NCMH Chief Ronald Cortez has issued a gag order on Avila, saying she was not authorized to issue statements in behalf of the hospital, insisting this was not covering up as they report to DOH daily, and they must follow policy. The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s editorial, on April 15 contrasted DOH’s lack of response to NCMH and the quick reply given to Arnold Clavio’s Black Saturday expose on social media about the piling up of bodies in a hospital hall in Quezon City. It criticized Cortez’ prohibition on a hospital official to speak to the media: “The situation at the NCMH is dead-serious, and demands utmost transparency and decisive action from health authorities to contain the spread of COVID-19 among a particularly vulnerable set of people. But how does gagging Avila protect the interest of NCMH patients or its workers?” It added: “That desperate frontliners have to resort to airing their sentiments anonymously can only speak of the dysfunctional state of affairs at the facility.”