Further lockdown in Hong Kong public housing estate as Omicron cluster grows

Police officers in protective gear standing guard at a public housing building under lockdown in Hong Kong on Jan 21, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG - Pressure is mounting on officials to contain the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus in a New Territories public housing estate - the city's largest cluster with more than 200 cases - as daily figures hit three digits for the third day in a row,  pushing the Hong Kong leader to order a five-day lockdown for a third block.

The health authorities said on Tuesday (Jan 25) that the city that day recorded 124 Covid-19 cases, of which 93 are local and 31 imported.

Six local cases, detected in Wong Tai Sin, Yuen Long and Kwun Tong, have unknown sources.

Of the local cases, 33 are linked to the expanding Kwai Chung Estate cluster, where 12 out of 16 blocks have seen infections. This brings the total number of confirmed and preliminary positive coronavirus cases in that cluster to 276.

There are more than 70 new preliminary positive cases.

Dr Chuang Shuk Kwan of the Centre for Health Protection said the authorities are monitoring the situation to see if there would be additional lockdowns. 

She admitted that while home quarantine is not ideal, it is an alternative solution if the quarantine facilities are filled up.

Hours earlier, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said about 94 per cent, or 210, of the cases came from three blocks in the estate - Yat Kwai House, Ying Kwai House and Ha Kwai House - collectively housing over 7,000 residents.

The cluster was traced initially to Yat Kwai House, where 96 people tested positive last Saturday, and cases were soon reported in Ying Kwai House. Both blocks were then put under a five-day lockdown over the weekend.

On Tuesday, Mrs Lam ordered the third block - Ha Kwai House - to be put under a five-day lockdown after it was sealed off overnight for mass Covid-19 testing.

With new cases still emerging in Yat Kwai House, the lockdown would be extended another two days to Friday (Jan 28), she added.

"So far, more than 150 cases have been found in Yat Kwai House, which was the first building to see an outbreak in the estate. It is the building with the most cases in Kwai Chung Estate," Mrs Lam noted.

The Kwai Chung Estate cluster is linked to an imported case of the Omicron variant at the centre of the Silka Seaview Hotel cluster, where cross-infection in the quarantine hotel took place.

Health officials on Monday warned that there could be silent transmissions in Wong Tai Sin after both the Omicron and Delta variants of the coronavirus were found in sewage samples.

A number of cases of infection have been found in the area, including a salon staff member and two customers, Dr Chuang said on Tuesday.

Under its zero-Covid-19 policy that saw the implementation of strict quarantine rules of up to 21 days and flight bans, Hong Kong has managed to keep its figures low at more than 13,200 cases and 213 deaths.

But the current community outbreak is testing the limits of the government's policies and its ability in reining in the pandemic.

In the past three weeks, officials have tightened measures, including shutting bars, gyms and cinemas from Jan 7, as well as banning dining in from 6pm. Schools have been ordered to shut until after the festivities, and civil servants were told to work from home as far as possible.

The stricter measures expire on Feb 3, but Mrs Lam has warned that there is "very slim chance" of easing the rules.

"The departments and bureaus are considering whether we can adjust the social distancing measures after Feb 3. The priority is to expand the vaccine bubble by boosting the vaccination rate," she said.

Mrs Lam said vaccination remains the most effective way to tackle the virus and would prevent a collapse of the Hong Kong public hospital system.

About 78 per cent of the 7.4 million population have had the first shot, while 71 per cent have had two jabs. But the take-up rate among seniors, particularly those aged 80 and above, remains low.

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