‘Tracing czar’ insists resignation over Baguio party flak irrevocable
BAGUIO CITY — Mayor Benjamin Magalong has resigned irrevocably as head of the country’s COVID-19 contact tracing effort following his admission that health protocols were breached at a party that he had attended with his wife, Arlene, nearly two weeks earlier.
“It pains me to see my family, and my constituents, in anguish over this but I am committed to hold myself accountable and do what is necessary to rectify this misstep,” Magalong said on Thursday in his resignation letter to Carlito Galvez Jr., the chief implementer of the National Task Force Against COVID-19 (NTF).
“Much as I have given my best to discharge my duties for the task force, this incident has been a reminder that a higher standard is always expected of me,” said Magalong, who is also called the contact tracing czar.
Galvez told reporters in Manila on Friday that he was “deeply hurt” when Magalong gave him the resignation letter.
“But we did not accept it because Mayor Magalong had done a lot for us,” Galvez said. “He is very professional. He will be a big loss.”
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Friday said the resignation was not accepted and that President Duterte had full trust in Magalong and expected him to implement the law with regard to violations of health protocols during the 44th birthday bash for social media celebrity Tim Yap at The Manor in Baguio City on Jan. 17.
Roque said the event was under investigation and that Magalong had acknowledged that lapses had been committed.
“Let us allow the process to proceed,” he said.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo praised Magalong for his “‘delicadeza’ and finesse” in resigning, but said the mayor’s help was still needed by the country in stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
“We need all hands on deck. Thus,the continued assistance of those with proven competence will be invaluable in our fight against COVID-19,” Panelo said.
Magalong, however, insisted that his resignation was irrevocable.
In a text message to the Inquirer, the Baguio mayor said, “Accountability is importantto me.”
Magalong resigned days after he was heavily criticized on social media for reportedly tolerating the “outright violations” during the birthday party where he and his wife were invited.
Some people who attended broke quarantine rules, failing to keep their masks on and maintain physical distancing.
In his letter to Galvez, Magalong said he should have made immediate “spot correction” of the violations that he had witnessed.
Magalong said he and his wife arrived around 8 p.m. for Yap’s party and saw that minimum standard health protocols were being followed.
Yap, KC pay P1,500 fine
The lapses occurred during dinner and when a group of performers invited the visitors to participate in a traditional community dance.
But Magalong said he made sure to remind the guests about complying with the health protocols.
Some of the guests, including Yap and Magalong’s wife, were photographed without masks.
Magalong said that his wife would be fined like the others.
On Thursday, Yap and one of his guests, actress KC Concepcion, each paid P1,500 in fines for removing their masks and for failing to abide by the local quarantine ordinances. Magalong’s wife paid a P1,000 fine.
The Manor paid P9,000 for breaching quarantine regulations it was supposed to enforce during the party.
The hotel was also cited for failing to secure the city government’s clearance to serve as the venue for Yap’s party.
Birthday parties are permitted under Baguio’s modified general community quarantine but only for a limited number of people.
The Manor hotel was also investigated for serving alcoholic beverages beyond the amount set by the government, according to the city information office.
In several television interviews, Yap said he organized the dinner to promote tourism in Baguio.
He said they wore masks during the occasion but had to remove these when dinner was served and while mingling with the dancers.
“It was never my intention to offend anyone. I would never do anything to endanger anyone,” Yap said in an apology to the public.
The party drew widespread condemnation on social media and among Baguio residents who said it was insensitive, given the surge of infections in the city.
From March last year to Thursday this week, Baguio had isolated and treated a total of 4,894 COVID-19 patients, and its hospitals and isolation facilities had confined 535 active cases.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire also urged Magalong to stay at his post.
“We at the [Department of Health, or DOH] believe that he should remain in that position. He has helped the contact tracing efforts of the country a lot,” she said.
Magalong was particularly effective in assisting contact tracing in the provinces of Bontoc and Mountain Province, and in the Cordillera Administrative Region, where the majority of the cases of the new, more infectious COVID-19 variant was detected, Vergeire said.
“He’s the one running the contact tracing efforts for this particular variant,” she said.
In a statement, Galvez appealed to the public to “withhold their judgment [against Magalong] and let the investigation take its due course.”
The NTF assured the public that those who committed violations during Yap’s party would be held accountable.
“We believe that the incident does not speak of Mayor Magalong’s true character nor define him as a public servant. We would like to express our full support to Mayor Magalong,” Galvez said of his fellow graduate from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).
Magalong graduated in 1982, three years ahead of Galvez.
Galvez said Magalong was a “man of honor, decency and commitment.”
The NTF chief said Magalong was a “trailblazer” in COVID-19 prevention and mitigation.
He said the Baguio mayor had traveled to different parts of the country to assess the health situation in communities and provide guidance to local governments on how they could scale up their contact tracing capacity.
Magalong was a former chief of the national police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, and used police investigative methods to trace people exposed to the coronavirus. —WITH REPORTS FROM DEXTER CABALZA, LEILA B. SALAVERRIA AND PATRICIA DENISE M. CHIU
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