“La Pandemia COVID-19 y La Ciudad De Zamboanga” (The COVID-19 Pandemic in Zamboanga City)

By: Dr. Pavio L. Buac, FPUA, FPCS, (UST FMS Class ’92) | Urology Consultant in Zamboanga City Medical Center

The City of Zamboanga, also known as Asia’s Latin City, is located at the southern tip of the Zamboanga Archipelago in Western Mindanao. With a current population of about 917,477, it is the 6th most populous and the 3rd largest city by land area in the Philippines. This highly urbanized city boasts a diversity of cultures, religions, and ethnicities and has long been the political, commercial, and industrial center in the Zamboanga Peninsula Region.

Amidst the increasing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte declared on March 9, 2020, a State of Public Health Emergency throughout the country. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 is a pandemic with more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries with 4,291 deaths. The Philippines had 49 confirmed cases and 1 fatality at the time of this pronouncement. On March 17, 2020, Pres. Duterte announced the placement of the entire Luzon under “Enhanced Community Quarantine” or ECQ to take effect on March 20, 2020. Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar likewise placed the entire city under ECQ on the same day. On March 24, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 in Zamboanga City was confirmed. The patient was a 29-year-old male who arrived from Metro Manila on March 13. The initial surge of cases came in late April 2020 from the City Reformatory Center involving 204 inmates and employees to date and still is regarded by the local health authorities as the epicenter of COVID in the city. Since then, sporadic cases came out from the different barangays in the community, including some locally stranded individuals (LSIs) and returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs).

The business sector in the city has also been direly affected by the pandemic. The sardines fishing and processing, however, continued being an essential industry, operating only by 50 to 60% in its production. Zamboanga City is known as the sardine capital of the Philippines having nine out of twelve sardines companies in the country, contributing to about 70% of the city’s economy.

In the health sector, there are currently ten (10) private hospitals and seven (7) public hospitals serving the community, including five (5) level 2 private hospitals and one (1) level 3 government regional training hospital. The latter, the Zamboanga City Medical Center (ZCMC) has been designated by the Department of Health as the COVID-19 referral facility for the Zamboanga Peninsula region. Presently, there are four licensed molecular laboratories for COVID-19 testing, including one GeneXpert (government) and three RT-PCR (1 government, 2 private). Overall, there are 2,299 healthcare workers in the city, including 707 physicians and 1,045 nurses. As of this writing, there are 2,167 total confirmed cases in the city, representing about 0.63% of the entire country’s cases. Of these, 667 are active cases and 1,403 have recovered. 97 have died due to the infection, with a fatality rate of 4.47%, compared to the country’s rate of only 1.85%. Of the health workers, 109 (4.76%) were confirmed positive, including 12 physicians, and fortunately, no fatalities were reported. The occupancy rate for COVID-19-allocated beds has reached more than 80% in the COVID referral hospital facility and more than 50% in three of five levels two private hospitals.

In the medical community, a handful of physicians have invested in their own personal protective equipment (PPEs), including elastomeric respirators, powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR), and hazmat suits or coveralls. Similarly, larger hospitals have adopted and formulated institutional-based guidelines and policies consistent with the health and safety protocols against COVID-19, as well as engineering and structural modifications of the hospital buildings to accommodate infected patients in completely separate wards and operating rooms.

Despite the rising number of cases, the city has been placed under Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) status since August 15, 2020. Recently, the city’s COVID referral facility had an outbreak among health workers including six physicians. A surgical consultant who recently recovered from COVID-19 reacted that the current situation “is getting worrisome”. One of those afflicted resident-physicians acknowledged that “it was our complacency, letting our guards down among our colleagues that led to the spread….”

On October 12, 2020, the city celebrated the Zamboanga Hermosa Festival, popularly known as Fiesta Pilar. Traditionally, it’s a month-long celebration of festivities in honor of the miraculous image of Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar). This year, the city government has limited the activities due to the MGCQ. Zamboanga City Mayor Beng Climaco-Salazar, in her social media post, reiterated, “Cuida tu Cuerpo, familia na casa, Comunidad y Ciudad” (Take care of yourself, your family, community, and city).

The resiliency of the Zamboangueños to see through all these trials and challenges has been proven time and time again. At the end of the day, we believe that we’ll emerge from this pandemic as a stronger and better community with the guidance of our Almighty God and Nuestra Señora La Virgen del Pilar. “Vaya con Dios!”