Fears of coronavirus cluster ease as 5 from Hong Kong housing block test negative

Police in protective gear waiting to evacuate residents from a public housing building in Hong Kong's Tsing Yi district yesterday. The building has two confirmed coronavirus cases.
Police in protective gear waiting to evacuate residents from a public housing building in Hong Kong's Tsing Yi district yesterday. The building has two confirmed coronavirus cases.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG • Five Hong Kongers evacuated from a residential building where two people confirmed with coronavirus live have tested negative for the virus, the health authorities said yesterday, easing concerns of a cluster of the outbreak in the city.

The five people exhibited flu-like symptoms earlier. They remain in quarantine, together with 200-plus residents who were evacuated in the early hours from the building in the Tsing Yi district in the New Territories. The complex houses some 3,000 people.

The evacuation occurred after a 62-year-old woman became the second confirmed case in the building on Monday, following the case of a 75-year-old man who tested positive on Jan 30. The two patients, currently receiving treatment, live on different floors.

Initial investigations into the drainage system further reduced concerns that the virus may have spread through the pipes, the authorities said. The flat where the latest infection was discovered had an alteration to its drainage system, but the pipe network in the public building was in good condition, they said.

Hong Kong is on high alert for any potential "super spreader" events, especially in the towering housing blocks that make the city one of the world's most densely populated places.

During the 2003 outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed 299 people in Hong Kong, 42 deaths came from just one housing estate - Amoy Gardens, where about 300 people were infected. The virus was found to have spread through faulty drainage pipes.

"The pipe design in the building is very good and even better than in many private properties, and it is definitely not the same situation as Amoy Gardens," said Professor Yuen Kwok Yung, chair of infectious diseases at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Microbiology.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said yesterday: "As part and parcel of enhancing social distancing, we are making an appeal to the people of Hong Kong to stay at home as much as possible... We are not going for compulsory closures because Hong Kong is a free society."

A 59-year-old resident of the building in Tsing Yi, who gave her surname as Chan, said: "Of course, I am scared.

"We seldom go out already because we don't have enough masks. I don't allow my grandchildren to play in the hallway. Now, we can't even stay at home."

Hong Kong's leader is grappling with the health scare even as she faces broader tensions in Hong Kong society, where months of often violent anti-government protests paralysed parts of the global financial centre.

The virus has piled further pressure on Hong Kong's economy, with retailers, hotels and travel-related businesses among the hardest hit as tourists stay away.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2020, with the headline 'Fears of virus cluster ease as 5 from HK housing block test negative'. Print Edition | Subscribe