By Diana G. Mendoza

Nearly 15 hours daily, Mondays to Saturdays. That’s how Marguerite Maguzzo spends six of the seven days of the week attending to people who are scheduled to receive their vaccinations against COVID-19. She is required to be at the vaccination site from as early as 7 a.m. to as late as 8 p.m. when the encoders have finished their work for the day.

Her Sundays are for her 13-month old baby. “On workdays, I rush to go home to my baby. But Sundays are totally precious,” she said.

Interviewed at the Diosdado Macapagal Elementary School in Tatalon, Quezon City where she has been assigned since the vaccine rollout started last year, she said daily vaccinations average 2,000 a day both for first and second doses.

A nursing undergraduate but is licensed in respiratory therapy, Marguerite is not authorized to perform inoculations but she is assigned to record the recipients’ medical history and information, and take their vital signs such as temperature and blood pressure (BP). Males and females equal in number in the daily vaccinations, but she said she noticed that there are more men who are hypertensive than women. The scare of injections contributes to the men’s high BP on their vaccination day. “We have to help them calm down and relax,” she said.

She witnessed that women are more comfortable with needle pricks. “They treat injections like a dab of makeup on the cheek,” she said, unlike men who, she jested, “appear strong but are panicking silently, hoping it’s done quickly.”

She recalled a few times about being asked by a nurse to stay with a male recipient in the observation area. “May lalaki kasing namutla pagkatapos maturukan. Sinamahan ko muna; nakipagkuwentuhan para maging komportable. (A man turned pale after the injection so I was asked to stay with him. I talked with him to make him comfortable),” she said. She recalled having done this process to a handful of other male vaccinees.

The respiratory therapist clarified that she is not devaluing men with her reflection, as it is nothing but a thought that is shared by many medical professionals. “Males and females have their unique qualities, and this is where we always say that the important thing to do is to respect each other,” she said.

Dr. Lily Cruz, a pediatrician who is assigned to assess vaccinees prior to their injections, shared Marguerite’s observation. “There are global studies saying needle fear is evident in both males and females, and even higher in females; but among Filipinos, I think it’s because the Pinays readily seek medical help when they need it, so they are used to the sight of needles,” she explained. “They visit doctors a few times before they give birth,” she said. “Filipino men just keep quiet when they don’t feel well. They don’t like going to a doctor or having their blood extracted.” 

But for the vaccinations, Dr. Cruz said the doctors and nurses have been primed to make the jabs as quick and easy as possible. “Our practice is to make the person count with us – one, two, three – and it’s done.”

The Philippines is one of the poorest performers in the global indexes on the coronavirus pandemic response, and health workers and Filipinos continue to struggle with the health crisis. 

For a job that requires her to work beyond the regular eight-hour, five-day work week, Marguerite earns only P14,000 (around US$280) a month. She started from P5,000 (US$100) a month to P8,000 (US$160) in the early 2000s up to 2008. She is separated from her boyfriend and has to take care of their 13-month old baby. She is supported by her sister and stays in her own place so she does not worry about rent.

As she is employed by the Quezon City (QC) local government’s health department, she has been working in regular immunization programs and community health outreach activities. When the pandemic struck, she was called to help conduct swab tests prior to being assigned in the vaccination sites. She is only one of the members of the vaccination team comprising mostly of women – from the doctors to the barangay peace and order enforcers.

Noersa Perez encodes vaccine recipients’ information.

Noersa Perez, who’s only 19, was tapped by the QC Office of the City Mayor (OCM) as one of the encoders. She also arrives at the vaccination area early to record the vaccine recipients’ information and put them in the city’s database.

“When we started, we had difficulties putting all the info in sync, as the vaccinations occurred all at the same time from different levels of barangays, offices, companies, malls, department stores, buildings,” said Noersa. “The online registration even crashed,” she said adding that it was only in mid-2021 when the data-keeping improved.

Noersa goes home at past 8 p.m. She said she appreciates the concern of the rest of the team to wait for the encoders to finish before they call it a day, and prepare for the next day. “Vaccinations close usually at 5 p.m. but the team waits for people who have to come from work then rush to get to their jab appointments. So all of us have to wait until the last recipient is done.”

Djalin Sy prepares vaccination cards.

Djalyn Sy, an administrative officer under the OCM, is in charge of the last step of the vaccination process: to provide the vaccination card, including a sticker and a fancy baller, for those who have received their second and final jab; or an appointment card for those who have to come back for their second injection. These are given with a bottle of distilled water and some snacks.

“It feels like graduation when people line up for the last phase of the vaccination process,” she said. “It makes me happy to see them happy.”

An August 2020 demographic study of the University of the Philippines Population Institute on health human resources during the coronavirus pandemic found that the health profession is dominated by women (75%), and the young, as 65% are under the age of 35, most commonly referred to as the millennial generation. The average age of health professionals in the Philippines is 33 years old for men and 35 years old for women.

The Department of Health reported that coronavirus cases in the Philippines has reached 2.83 million since the pandemic began, with over 48,000 deaths and with two surges caused by SARS-COV2 variants that peaked to as high as 20,000 new cases tallied each day.

Over 36 million Filipinos are so far fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which is still too small for the government’s targeted 90% herd immunity. Vaccinations are still ongoing and as of this writing, the government is conducting three-day immunization drives to accelerate the vaccine rollout across the country. But its first three-day jab drive failed to meet its target of administering nine million vaccine doses. It hopes to achieve more in the next three-day schedule before Christmas.

Pediatrician Dr. Cruz said the medical community has been impatient about how the government is conducting vaccinations. “The ongoing inquiry on corruption in the purchase of medical supplies saddens us even more,” she said.

In September, prominent doctors under the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) and other medical societies expressed outrage over President Rodrigo Duterte’s order barring Cabinet officials from appearing in the Senate inquiry into the alleged corruption in his government’s pandemic response.

PCP president Dr. Maricar Limpin said “it was sickening to hear that people associated with President Duterte may have exploited the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers” during the pandemic. The Senate hearings revealed alleged anomalies that involve Pharmally, a company closely associated with Duterte’s Chinese friends, and the Department of Budget and Management.

Health workers and Filipinos continue to struggle with the health crisis. 

The Philippines is one of the poorest performers in the global indexes on the coronavirus pandemic response, and health workers and Filipinos continue to struggle with the health crisis. 

Dr. Cruz and Marguerite share sentiments about the slow vaccination process, but they both hope that by yearend, around 60% to 80% of the population will be covered. “Our daily work is exhausting but we can only savor the little moments of happiness, such as men who walk away felling brave, or elderly persons saying now, they can live longer because they have been vaccinated,” she said.

“We have more challenges to face,” she said, because, the next sector to be vaccinated are  children and adolescents with co-morbidities. “It’s a different ballgame. We’re getting ready for them.” WWW