Department of Health (DOH) Usec. Maria Rosario Vergeire has been designated by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. as officer-in-charge of the agency last July 14, or exactly two weeks since he assumed power with an incomplete Cabinet.
Based on Marcos Jr.’s first memorandum circular, however, OICs would serve only until July 31 or until there’s a replacement already, whichever comes first.
The next two weeks are going to be crucial for Vergeire given the recent spike, not just in COVID-19, but also in dengue cases in the country.
Vergeire’s public health colleagues noted that she must be up to the task, as her rather short stint as OIC is a race against time.
Fast-track COVID-19 booster shot roll-out
For Dr. Tony Leachon, former special adviser of the National Task Force vs. COVID-19, Vergeire’s first order of business should be to fast-track the booster shot roll-out due to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases and the return of face-to-face classes.
“The Philippines is among those with the slowest vaccination rate. What are the innovative things she'd do to fast-track vaccination?” Leachon told PhilSTAR L!fe. The United Kingdom and United States began vaccinating their countrymen in December 2020, vis-à-vis the Philippines’ March 2021. Neighboring countries like Singapore also started its COVID-19 vaccination program in December 2020, Indonesia in January 2021, and Thailand in February.
The DOH said the previous week saw an average of 1,700 new daily cases nationwide. The capital Metro Manila, meanwhile, is recording over 700 cases since July 8.
Nationwide healthcare utilization rates, however, remain low, with 17% of 2,414 intensive care unit beds and 22.7% of 21,424 non-ICU beds occupied to date. Based on DOH standards, healthcare systems are classified as "high risk" if occupancy rates surpass 70%.
“The sooner (Vergeire) addresses the COVID-19 situation through the booster shot roll-out, the better. We’ll have a merry Christmas,” Leachon said, adding that if things go according to plan, it would be all systems go for the administration’s economic programs, and the inflation can be managed promptly.
Vergeire told ANC on July 15 that she wants to put up vaccination sites in schools, reinforcing her previous proposal to make COVID-19 jabs available in workplaces, places of worship, and public markets.
To date, some 71.6 million Filipinos, or 65.3% of the population, have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. As of July 13, DOH data showed that 15.3 million booster doses have been administered.
Increase healthcare workers’ salaries, benefits
Among Vergeire’s priorities while in office, she said, is to increase the salary and benefits of healthcare workers.
Vergeire said funds for their benefits have already been downloaded to the DOH Centers for Health Development. The DOH is also looking to increase funding for such benefits because they’re still “lacking,” she noted.
“We’re going to pursue this,” Vergeire said.
In Metro Manila, nurses in private hospitals are paid the minimum wage of P537 daily, which is more or less around P12,000 monthly. Those in the provinces get paid even less.
During the Nurses Week job fair last May, St. Luke’s Medical Center in Bonifacio Global City promised new hires a P10,000 signing bonus, free groceries, and free condotel lodging for six months, among others.
But some groups say not all private hospitals can afford to give such perks.
As for public hospital nurses, they’re at Salary Grade 15, or P35,097 monthly. Though Maristela Presto-Abenojar, Filipino Nurses United national president, told Philstar.com that not everybody receives this amount. In the provinces, for instance, Presto-Abenojar said nurses are only given 65% of their supposed pay.
Over half of public hospital nurses are also contractual workers and aren’t entitled to benefits and leave credits, she told Philstar.com.
That’s why Filipino nurses often seek greener pastures abroad, where they could earn as much as P750,000 a year, or at least P60,000 monthly.
For Leachon, a healthcare worker in the country should earn a minimum of P100,000 monthly, benefits not yet included.
“We should put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “Ang problema kasi, nagiging lip service lang na we praise them as heroes. Pero they are overburdened and overworked but underpaid and underappreciated.”
Address the dengue outbreak
The recent dengue outbreak in the country is also expected to be dealt with under Vergeire’s watch.
Dengue is a viral disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes, which lay eggs on or near stagnant water. It’s common in tropical countries like the Philippines, which is already on its wet season or tag-ulan. Blocked gutters, street drains, pails, and tires are also ubiquitous in the country, and they’re instant breeding grounds for the insect.
DOH data showed that from Jan. 1 to June 25, there are a total of 64,797 dengue cases, 90% higher than the reported 34,074 cases during the same period in 2021.
Some 274 individuals died of dengue this year, according to the agency.
To deal with the disease, Vergeire has since reminded the public to follow the 4S strategy: search and destroy breeding places; secure self-protection; seek early consultation; and support fogging or spraying in hotspot areas.
She also expressed openness in “thoroughly” studying dengue vaccine Dengvaxia anew.
“Once we have completed that, we will be convening our experts,” she told ANC. “Para magkaroon naman tayo ng rekomendasyon para sa ating Presidente kung saka-sakali.”
Dengvaxia, launched in 2016, became controversial when manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur disclosed that those who were given the shot but haven’t contracted dengue are at a higher risk.
Ang problema kasi, nagiging lip service lang na we praise (healthcare workers) as heroes. Pero they are overburdened and overworked but underpaid and underappreciated. — Tony Leachon
The following year, the Food and Drug Administration ordered the suspension of Dengvaxia and its withdrawal from the market. But prior to the order, about 800,000 schoolchildren already got the vaccine.
In any case, the DOH confirmed in January 2019 that no deaths were directly attributable to Dengvaxia.
Dr. Edsel Salvana, a member of the DOH’s Technical Advisory Group, told PhilSTAR L!fe that Vergeire’s proposal for Dengvaxia is a “good idea,” noting Dengvaxia and the dengue vaccine of Japanese company Takeda are “potentially useful tools” for decreasing cases.
“There are also new point-of-care diagnostic tools that can check for previous dengue infection,” Salvana said.
For Leachon, however, it’s best for Vergeire to instead deal with the root cause of the problem: the mosquitoes’ breeding grounds. He said Vergeire must work with the Department of Interior and Local Government and Department of Public Works and Highways to organize clean-up drives and flood control projects in communities. A massive education campaign on dengue must also be in place, he added.
Leachon also believes Dengvaxia is a band-aid solution that should be shelved altogether, saying previous stigma surrounding it could only trigger COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy anew.
A Social Weather Stations survey conducted in December 2021 and released February 2022 found that 8% of 1,440 are unwilling to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a continuous improvement from the 18% who were hesitant in September, 21% in June, and 33% in May.
The latest survey also found that four out of five Filipinos are willing to receive COVID-19 booster shots.
Who is Maria Rosario Vergeire?
Vergeire, known as Rosette to family and friends, is a familiar sight during press briefings and media interviews about the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in 2020.
She took up her undergraduate degree at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, her doctor of medicine at the De La Salle College of Medicine in Cavite, and master’s degree in public health at the University of the Philippines Manila.
Vergeire first worked at the Marikina City Health Office in 1996 and stayed for 11 years.
She joined the DOH in 2007 and rose through the ranks in the coming years.
She also had months-long stint at the FDA as OIC director general for field regulatory operations. She eventually returned to the DOH and held various positions, the last one being the DOH spokesperson and undersecretary of the agency’s public health services team.
Last June, Vergeire became the head of the National Vaccination Operations Center.
Several bodies welcomed her appointed as OIC, most of which are hoping she becomes a full-fledged Secretary of Health.
OCTA Research’s Ranjit Rye said Vergeire will provide continuity and stability to the DOH.
“She is very competent and the public trusts her. She has been the reassuring voice of the DOH during the pandemic,” Rye said, adding that while Vergeire is “not a big fan of OCTA,” Marcos Jr. should include her name in his short list of SOH candidates to finally consider.
Former DOH secretary and now Iloilo 1st District Rep. Janette Garin said she’s “proud and confident” of Vergeire, recalling how they worked together through the years.
Salvana also told PhilSTAR L!fe that Vergeire is a “perfect choice” to lead the department, as she’s “well-equipped” with knowledge to deal with the complex issues in the sector.
(Vergeire) is very competent and the public trusts her. She has been the reassuring voice of the DOH during the pandemic. — Ranjit Rye
“I have utmost respect for the Sec. Rosette’s near-encyclopedic knowledge of the bureaucracy,” he said. “I have full faith and confidence in her, having worked with her through the entire pandemic and seeing how calm and rational her decisions have been.”
Leachon also described Vergeire as a “competent leader,” but noted that a person in charge of one of the most crucial cabinet portfolios, if not the most crucial, should not only possess competence.
“In this time of crisis,” Leachon said, “you also need a leader with humility, authenticity, empathy, social skills, and awareness.”