Hong Kong hotels may house mild Covid-19 cases as hospitals fill up

A worker sanitising the entrance of a quarantine hotel in Hong Kong’s Central’s area on Feb 6, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hotels in Hong Kong may soon be checking in asymptomatic people infected with Covid-19 as the city's ballooning outbreak means that its hospitals and virus-containment facilities have rapidly reached maximum capacity.

Risks would be low for the hotels, said Girish Jhunjhnuwala, chief executive officer of Ovolo Group Ltd, because patients would be confined to their rooms and subject to frequent Covid-19 tests, he said on Thursday (Feb 10) in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

The shift reflects the city's deterioration in a matter of weeks, after the Asian financial hub posted more than 1,000 daily cases for the first time on Wednesday. Hospitals, which often hit capacity in the winter even before Covid-19 emerged, are struggling as the city continues with a policy of trying to isolate every person who tests positive for the virus.

Jhunjhnuwala said he heard one or two hotels have been converting rooms for use by asymptomatic patients.

Officials are drawing up hotel lists where patients could be placed, the South China Morning Post reported, citing unidentified people. Details will be announced once suitable properties are found, the paper said. Home isolation for such patients would be the last resort.

The change does carry risk, as transmission of the virus has occurred in quarantine hotels while they were housing people who tested negative for the virus before flying into Hong Kong.

There aren't many other options. The city's public health-care infrastructure is increasingly under strain from its "zero-Covid-19" policy, which requires thousands of patients and their close contacts be sent into isolation facilities in public hospitals or quarantined to contain the outbreak.

Authorities are already showing signs of losing their grip on the situation, urging residents with mild Covid-19-like symptoms to go to a private doctor to get tested. It is a U-turn from their previous recommendation that those who test positive with a home kit should go to public hospitals for an official diagnosis.

They have also converted the government-run quarantine camp known as Penny's Bay, originally used to house the close contacts of infected people, into an isolation facility for those carrying the virus.

The sheer number of cases emerging every day in Hong Kong is already overtaking those adjustments. Hospital isolation rooms and beds are almost 90 per cent full, and it could take days for people who test positive at home to be admitted into public hospitals, health officials said on Wednesday. They asked people to stay calm and remain at home until a bed could be found for them.

Hotels, which had previously relied on tourist quarantine packages to keep business afloat amidst some of the world's toughest travel restrictions, suffered a blow after the government last month banned flights from eight countries including the US, Britain and Australia to root out the virus. The city also shut down some travel routes if there were too many infected people arriving on those flights.

Ovolo's two quarantine hotels have seen occupancy rates halved to 45 per cent after the ban, Jhunjhnuwala said. "That has put a damper on quarantine hotels," he said, because the affected countries are among Hong Kong's largest sources of returning travellers.

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