Some Visayas mayors not on priority list get vaccinated against COVID-19

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 23) — A number of local chief executives in the Visayas were inoculated against COVID-19, skipping the vaccine priority line.

Mayor Alfred Romualdez of Tacloban City, Leyte, was injected with China’s Sinovac on Monday, while Mayor Elanito Peña of Minglanilla, Cebu received the vaccine from the British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca on Tuesday.

At least three mayors in Bohol were likewise vaccinated over the past days — Mayor Victoriano Torres of Alicia, Mayor Virgilio Mendez of San Miguel, and Mayor Arturo Piollo II of Lila.

Most announcements were made through their own or their local government’s social media pages.

Mayor Alfred Romualdez of Tacloban City, Leyte was injected with China’s Sinovac on Monday, while Mayor Elanito Peña of Minglanilla, Cebu received the vaccine from the British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca on Tuesday.

According to Romualdez, the shot was administered by a nurse from the Department of Health who is deployed at the City Health Office. His staff earlier said the mayor got his first dose in his home, but the city public information office later clarified that it happened at the Tacloban City Astrodome. Pictures of the mayor getting the shot showed him without a face mask on.

Peña, on the other hand, was vaccinated along with over 100 healthcare workers at the city's rural health facility. In a now-deleted Facebook post, the local government also posted photos of the mayor getting inoculated.

Torres and Mendez also disclosed the news online. According to Torres, a number of village chiefs joined him in the inoculation.

"Got my 1st dose of COVID-19 vaccine together with my friends barangay captains of Barangay Cabatang, Progreso, Cayacay, Untaga, and Napo," Torres said in a Facebook post on Monday, which includes photos of him being injected with a still unidentified vaccine.

Five days earlier on March 17, Mendez uploaded a video of him getting inoculated, with the caption: "I am a municipal mayor, a senior citizen, and I believe in vaccination.”

San Miguel town's Piollo, meanwhile, got the Sinovac vaccine on Monday, according to the local newspaper The Bohol Chronicle.

The government is still completing the vaccination of all 1.7 million healthcare workers in the country using the limited supply of doses before moving on to other priority sectors. Mayors, governors, and village chiefs were recently moved up in the COVID-19 vaccine priority list, but they can only be inoculated after health workers, senior citizens and persons with comorbidities.

Romualdez defended his decision to jump the priority line.

"Never say that I did it to save myself before others," he said. "I did it to make the people see that it was okay to get the vaccine. I wanted our people to take it for protection, and so that the efforts of the national government will not be in vain.”

Meanwhile, Peña said his doctor colleagues agreed that he should be vaccinated, too, considering he is also a frontliner as the chief of the town’s anti-coronavirus task force.

"It is okay because I work like a frontliner. I’m a frontliner, and I regularly meet our COVID-19 team, and we face a lot of people in our work," said the Minglanilla mayor in the vernacular.

Piollo was quoted by The Bohol Chronicle as saying he asked permission from DOH-Central Visayas director Jaime Bernadas who answered, "it is your call." The mayor explained he got the shot to help raise vaccine confidence.

But Dr. Mary Jean Loreche, spokesperson of DOH-Central Visayas, reiterated that local government officials should await their turn as the national vaccination program clearly states medical frontliners get the first shots.

Health Spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire also stressed the need to follow the prioritization framework, as doing otherwise would put the country’s vaccine supply at risk.

“As WHO (World Health Organization) Country Rep. Dr. Rabi Abeyasinghe has previously emphasized, all doses must first be administered to the agreed upon priority groups starting with HCWs,” she said in a statement. “Giving the vaccines to non-HCWs when not all HCWs have been vaccinated will jeopardize succeeding doses from COVAX.”

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque on Tuesday said he will refer Romualdez's case to the Department of Interior and Local Government for investigation. Interior Undersecretary Epimaco Densing said they are preparing show cause orders against three unnamed mayors to explain why they jumped the line.

"Hindi pa pwedeng magpabakuna muna ang hindi medical frontliners dahil kung susuway tayo sa order of priority, maaapektuhan ang future deliveries galing sa COVAX," Roque said in a media breifing. "We regret this incident, but I will refer the matter to DILG for proper action dahil kailangan po talagang imbestigahan ito."

[Translation: Non-medical frontliners cannot get vaccinated because this will be against the order of priority. It will jeopardize our future COVAX deliveries. This needs to be investigated.]

Over three weeks since the inoculation drive began in the country, only 336,656 have been vaccinated — mostly healthcare workers and some government and local officials like Romualdez and Peña who breached the priority list. The low vaccination rate comes despite the fact that 98% or 1,105,600 out of 1,125,600 doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac doses have been distributed in 1,623 vaccination sites in 17 regions.

RELATED: Gov't ready to move on after 'breaches' in vaccine priority list

Romualdez announced on Dec. 10 that he contracted COVID-19. Experts have advised those infected with COVID-19 to wait at least three months after they are clinically recovered before getting a vaccine. Current evidence suggests that reinfection is unlikely to occur 90 days after the initial infection.

CNN Philippines senior digital producer Lara Tan, digital producer Kristel Limpot, and stringers Wilmark Amazona and Dale Israel contributed to this report.