Covid-19 cases cross 2,000 mark in Hong Kong, crucial week for public health system

Testing facilities and staff in Hong Kong have been stretched. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG - This could turn out to be a crucial week for Hong Kong's public health system, with capacity for treating Covid-19 patients at public hospitals already at the brink and testing facilities swamped.

Hospitals have moved to cut down on non-essential services and surgeries as Covid-19 cases cross the 2,000 mark, while two more people have died.

The Hospital Authority's chief manager for cluster performance, Mr Ian Cheung Tsz Fung, on Tuesday (July 21) warned that 77 per cent of beds in isolation rooms are now occupied by patients in quarantine.

This means that local hospitals are reaching the 80 per cent threshold for treating such patients. The remaining 20 per cent are reserved for emergencies.

In the past week, about 50 Covid-19 patients have been sent to quarantine in hospitals on average every day.

Speaking during a RTHK programme in the morning, Mr Cheung said the problem has been compounded by the fact that there are many elderly patients who suffer from chronic illnesses or require hospital stays.

Later in the day during their daily briefing, health authorities reported 61 new infections, bringing the total tally of confirmed cases in the city to 2,019, including 14 deaths. Fifty-eight of the new cases were local, extending a trend that has alarmed officials and health experts.

Testing facilities and staff have been stretched with the Centre for Health Protection issuing an apology early on Tuesday for mixing up the test results of two people.

Dr Leung Chi Chiu of the Hong Kong Medical Association told The Straits Times that the key now was to mobilise the community into staying at home as much as possible and as soon as possible.

"Now is the time for the private sector to follow the example of the government, to allow most of their employees to work at home and also for all residents to stay home as much as possible."

"This is the surest way of cutting the transmission links," he said, adding that in doing so, the authorities can then trace key transmission routes and stop the spread of the virus.

Dr Leung insisted that transmission within a housing unit could be contained, when it was pointed out to him that Hong Kong is a densely populated city and many people share a unit.

He said that so long as individuals remained in their unit, it would be easy to detect and trace the source of infections. He also called for the stepping up of personal hygiene measures.

"Even if there is transmission within a single premise, you can always track them down very quickly," said the chairman of the association's communicable diseases advisory committee.

Health experts in the city have pointed to lax border controls for foreign arrivals as one of the main reasons for the current wave of infections, adding that quarantine measures were not as tight in the last two months.

Government data showed that some 200,000 people received exemptions from the mandatory 14-day quarantine or tests between February and May. They included air and sea crew, as well as those bringing food supplies into the city. Earlier this month, incoming air and ship crew were tested for the virus but not quarantined.

Dr Leung, however, remained confident the city would be able to come to grips with the problem.

"I'm sure we will be able to contain the situation within a matter of weeks," he said, noting the city would be able to curb transmissions because of the high percentage of people who wore masks.

The surge in infections, in the meantime, has been another blow to the city's recessionary economy, dashing hopes of a rebound in the coming months.

They came just as retail sales picked up after social distancing rules were relaxed recently.

The jobless rate hit 6.2 per cent, the highest in more than 15 years, and PwC forecast on Tuesday that retail sales would fall by nearly 20 per cent to about HK$346 billion (S$62 billion) this year.

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