HONG KONG - Hong Kong is facing the prospect of a wider lockdown after Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the city’s government to “use every necessary measure” to contain a rapidly spreading Omicron-led outbreak.
On Wednesday (Feb 16), the city hit a new high of more than 4,200 new infections, with another 7,000 preliminary positive cases. It has recorded over 30,800 confirmed cases and over 230 deaths so far.
On Tuesday, an infected three-year-old girl became the city’s youngest fatality, after the death of a four-year-old boy last Friday.
Parents had on Tuesday rushed to get their kids vaccinated with Sinovac jabs after the government lowered the age limit to three. Only those from the age of five can take the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, the only other option available.
The health authorities said on Wednesday that 17 per cent of the confirmed cases in the past two weeks were patients under the age of 18, of whom 9 per cent are aged six and below.
Ms Ashley Lee, in her 40s, who has two school-going daughters, has booked an appointment for her younger daughter, 11, to get vaccinated.
“I feel very sorry for those who got the side effects, but it seems like we have no choice in such a situation. If you don’t get vaccinated, kids can’t go to school,” she told The Straits Times.
Local media reported that the government will be rolling out mandatory testing for the 7.4 million population from early March so as to detect cases and send them for treatment and isolation.
Citing sources, the reports said the mass testing to be carried out according to identification numbers, will wrap up in a week. There will be three rounds of such tests.
The aim is to isolate all infections by end March and avoid a city-wide lockdown.
Previously, the city's leader had said the chief executive election slated for March 27 will go on as planned, but it is subject to review.
As at Tuesday, 12,000 preliminary positive and confirmed patients were waiting at home to be admitted to hospitals.
Public hospitals have had to pitch tents outdoors as they ran out of isolation beds inside. Many elderly patients were spotted lying on beds in the open or in wheelchairs.
Describing the situation as not ideal, Dr Sara Ho, general manager of the Hospital Authority, said the hospital isolation bed occupancy rate is now at over 90 per cent, “which is the upper limit”.
She apologised for making the elderly wait in such unfavourable conditions and said the authorities are looking at ways to ease the bottleneck.
Already, non-essential services like check-ups at public hospitals have been greatly reduced by 40 per cent to 50 per cent, said Dr Ho, who added that there are now more than 4,000 patients in public hospitals and isolation facilities.
Starting on Wednesday, the government will open seven designated clinics for preliminary positive and confirmed cases with mild symptoms.
These clinics are expected to treat over 1,000 patients a day for symptoms including fever, cough and sore throat. People with mild symptoms will be sent home and those in serious condition will be sent to hospital.
The government has enlisted the help of property groups and now has at least 100,000 hotel rooms for isolation purposes.
The Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po dailies on Wednesday reported that Mr Xi had asked Vice-Premier Han Zheng to convey his concerns to Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Mr Xi reportedly said the Hong Kong government must make controlling the Covid-19 outbreaks the top priority, mobilise all manpower and resources, and use every necessary measure to ensure the safety and health of Hong Kongers, as well as the stability of society.
This comes a day after Mrs Lam reiterated that the government does not plan to put Hong Kong, which follows the mainland in adopting a zero-Covid approach, under an islandwide lockdown.
So far, the government has imposed only small-scale overnight lockdowns of specific developments for people to get tested, or lockdowns of buildings which span about a week.
In a statement issued hours after the articles were published, Mrs Lam said her team will “assume the main responsibility to stabilise the epidemic situation early as the over-riding mission at present”, in line with Mr Xi’s “important instruction”.
She added that experts from both sides will beef up Hong Kong’s capacity of nucleic acid testing and construction of community isolation and treatment facilities, as well as ensure there are medical supplies and other supplies from the mainland.
Chinese policy advisers and state media have, in recent days, publicly criticised Hong Kong’s strategy and said a citywide lockdown, like those in the mainland, is needed.
But respiratory medicine doctor Leung Chi Chiu said a full lockdown in high-density Hong Kong would not stop the spread of the virus, “as cross-transmissions within families, buildings and essential social contacts will maintain transmissions for multiple incubation periods”.
“Strong community infrastructure is required to implement and support the lockdown, and repeated testing, as seen in the mainland,” he told The Straits Times.
Dr Leung said what people in Hong Kong can do is stay home as much as possible to sustain social distancing long enough for testing and isolation to work, in turn, stopping local transmissions.