RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to the Philippines, where a hospital and its staff were recovering from a volcano when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The hospital's chief says their struggle to get back to normal operations has made his staff targets for abuse. NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Julie McCarthy reports.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Dr. Basil Eric Tenorio's polymedic hospital in the town of Taal was still reeling from the eruption of a volcano in January when the COVID pandemic struck. Tenorio told us in an interview on Skype that ash fall devastated his 40-bed facility and more.
BASIL ERIC TENORIO: So most of our staff are still repairing their houses, rebuilding their houses. And they're attending to their families.
MCCARTHY: So Tenorio's hospital - he's the CEO - was short-staffed when a man came to the ER complaining of weakness. Relatives wanted him admitted to the intensive care unit. But Tenorio explained that the ICU nurses, their lives upended by the volcano, were not yet back at work, nor did Tenorio's ER staff detect symptoms that warranted the ICU. They offered the man a room instead, but he left.
TENORIO: And he stayed only for 15 minutes, 5:30 to 5:45.
MCCARTHY: In that 15 minutes, the family decided to take the man to a second hospital, where he deteriorated and was again transferred, for the last time, to Manila.
TENORIO: After nine days, we received news that the patient died in the Manila hospital.
MCCARTHY: COVID-19 claimed the 64-year-old man's life on March 29, a startling development for Taal Polymedic Hospital. The six-member team who'd first seen the man immediately quarantined. But nine days had passed from the time they first saw the patient to the time they discovered he had died in the pandemic. And by then, the team had mingled with a hundred other members of staff.
Word of the COVID-19 death, meanwhile, raced through the small town like fire, Tenorio says. Hospital employees were thought to be contagious; many were abruptly shunned. Out of fear of being harassed, only a handful went to work. And Tenorio was forced to close his hospital, the only COVID-19 referral facility in Taal.
TENORIO: We cannot run the hospital because of this social harassment and persecution for our people.
MCCARTHY: Tenorio says a medical technician was barred by the grocer. An orderly was accosted by neighbors and warned to stay out of the hospital. A janitor was blocked by his neighbors from entering his home. They relented after he broke down and cried. Now no one will talk to him.
TENORIO: When he walks outside the house, everybody will close the door, everybody will close the window.
MCCARTHY: Tenorio says groups of five or six townspeople have verbally intimidated the hospital's employees.
TENORIO: Verbally abusing them, yelling at them to vacate their houses and goes anywhere else.
MCCARTHY: Tenorio says they have been spared physical violence of the sort seen on the island of Mindanao, where a gang of five attackers doused a hospital employee's face with bleach. Tenorio blames the cruel treatment on fear and ignorance. To reestablish trust, he's enlisted radio stations and churches to remind people that there are no COVID cases in Taal. And he's put himself and nearly his entire staff under quarantine.
Tenorio is hoping that once the quarantine is lifted, he'll be able to show a jittery public that his staff is not infected, poses no threat and it's safe to reopen the hospital.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.