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In The Philippines, Keeping Non-Coronavirus Patients Out Of Hospitals May Be Crucial

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the Philippines, COVID-19 cases have topped 1.3 million. Most of them are in the sprawling metro Manila area. Reporter Ashley Westerman recently tagged along with a local team of emergency medical responders who are working very hard to keep non-COVID patients out of the hospital.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: It's 8 a.m. on Saturday when I arrive at a newly constructed building next to the city hall of San Juan, Metro Manila's smallest municipality. Inside a large white room are four sets of bunk beds and several mattresses laid out on the floor.

So how many people stay here, like, during a shift?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Twelve to 15.

WESTERMAN: This is where members of the San Juan Early Response Network eat, sleep and hang out between responding to medical emergencies called in from across the city.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Majority of our teammates here are EMTs already. We also have a registered nurse.

WESTERMAN: Serepada Tong Pacasum is head of the city's disaster management office. He oversees this crew, which is split into two teams that work 24/7 a week at a time. He says they go on seven to 15 medical emergency runs per day, and their goal is to try to take as few of those patients to the hospital as possible.

SEREPADA TONG PACASUM: Anything we could resolve in the household, we do it.

WESTERMAN: This work isn't easy. Since the pandemic started, 27 of the 63 members have tested positive for COVID. EMT Kristoff Feiling says he hasn't seen his family in two months because he's afraid to bring the virus home to his wife and children. But surprisingly, he isn't down about it.

KRISTOFF FEILING: We like to help other people. If it's in your heart, there's no reason for difficult (ph).

WESTERMAN: I soon get to see this dedication in action.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's go.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

WESTERMAN: A call comes in around 3 p.m. and is actually for another of the team's responsibilities - transferring COVID positive patients. In the Philippines, citizens who test positive are supposed to wait for an ambulance to take them to a hospital or a quarantine facility.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPER ZIPPING)

WESTERMAN: Before leaving, the team dons full-body suits, masks, face shields and gloves. They strap tape around their wrists.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE TEARING)

WESTERMAN: The ambulance collects the patient, a woman in her 30s who is 37 weeks pregnant, and then races her to the hospital. It's quite a ways away. When we pull up, a stark reminder of just how overwhelmed the health system is greets us. A line of some 50 people snakes down the sidewalk outside the hospital. EMT Florena Israel Mondejar explains.

FLORENA ISRAEL MONDEJAR: All patients - they are waiting for their admission.

WESTERMAN: Suddenly, Mondejar jerks in the opposite direction, finger pointing to the ambulance bay. We watch quietly as a body bag is carried away in a vehicle. Once the pregnant patient enters the hospital, that silence lingers until we're back at the barracks.

At 6:30, they go on another run, this time to San Juan's only mass vaccination site, hosted in a basketball arena. They have to check out a man who appears to be having some difficulties after receiving his vaccine. Once we arrive, the team jumps out of the ambulance and races through the building.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: We find the patient, a middle-aged, heavyset man, seated in the stands and looking despondent.

FEILING: (Unintelligible) and pulse rate.

WESTERMAN: EMT Feiling says the patient has elevated blood pressure. But when the team starts asking questions, the man seems to start to shake out of his trance. Feiling explains later that the patient told him he was a former drug addict.

FEILING: The drugs that he take affects his mind, so we bring him home.

WESTERMAN: Which means one less patient added to the already overcrowded hospitals.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Westerman in San Juan City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.