HONG KONG - Hong Kong needs to brace itself in the coming week as experts say the fifth wave of its Covid-19 outbreak is expected to peak, as morgues fill up and some residents panic buy in supermarkets ahead of a mass testing later this month and a possible nine-day lockdown.
Daily infections are projected to hit 183,000 in the coming week but only a fraction will be reported, based on a study led by Professor Gabriel Leung, dean of the medicine faculty at the University of Hong Kong.
Based on mathematics modelling, the study found that about 1.7 million people were already infected with the virus as at Monday (Feb 28) since the fifth wave started at the end of last December.
If the city's healthcare system remains overwhelmed, vaccination among seniors remains low and novel antivirals such as Paxlovid or molnupiravir are not available, deaths could go up to more than 4,600 by the end of April, said the study.
Researchers are urging the government to carry out compulsory mass testing in mid- or late April when infections drop to a level below that of the peak. This is to bring cases down to zero, in line with the city's zero-Covid-19 strategy.
If anti-pandemic measures were to be relaxed before April, the situation would deteriorate further, the study said.
Health authorities on Tuesday (March 1) said the city logged more than 32,500 cases, bringing the total tally to more than 225,000 infections and more than 900 deaths.
Like the surge in daily cases,the number of fatalities - most of which involve the elderly - has jumped and the city is bracing itself for the toll to rise further as more eldercare homes get hit by the virus.
So far, more than 4,000 residents and staff of more than 600 care homes for the elderly and for disabled people have been infected.
With mortuaries barely coping with the surge in deaths, dozens of bodies have been left in hospital accident and emergency rooms, yet to be transported over.
Dr Albert Au of the Centre for Health Protection said on Tuesday that the authorities have increased the number of places in mortuaries to 1,350, and are looking to funeral parlours and residential care homes to further increase storage capacity for the bodies.
"We will speed up the construction of the Fu Shan Public Mortuary. Some 800 additional spaces will be available in early April in phases," he said.
As nervousness builds up ahead of the compulsory mass testing on the entire 7.4 million population in mid-March, reports of a possible concurrent lockdown have triggered panic buying, despite officials' reassurances.
Citing sources, Sing Tao Daily reported that a nine-day lockdown may be imposed from March 17 to go with the mass testing, although the stock market will remain open.
So far, no further details have been made available about the government plan, besides the aim of testing each resident three times in three weeks.
However, online news portal HK01 reported that the mass testing will take place from March 26 to April 3.
On Tuesday, the panic buying at some supermarkets across the city continued, with shelves empty of eggs and meat. Some medicine was also out of stock.
Hong Konger Julia In, a mother of two children aged two and four, could not find any children's Panadol.
"I searched for a few days, hitting pharmacies, Mannings, Watsons and supermarkets and have not found any in my area.
"Since people are not being pragmatic, I hope shops and pharmacies limit the purchase of essential medicine per household," said Ms In, who is in her late 30s.
Singaporean Hailey Johnson, who is in her 30s and works in finance, noted that if the city is locked down, the government will allow people to go out and buy necessities.
"I am certainly worried that things might get tough during a lockdown but I do hope people understand that panic buying isn't helping anyone," she said.
The widening outbreak, which forced some bank branches to shut due to infections, has started to affect more services.
Rail operator MTR Corp cautioned on Tuesday that it may have to temporarily close some stations if the situation worsens as scores of staff have been infected.
Local media also reported that funeral home operators are feeling the pressure, with the Kowloon Funeral Parlour turning away bodies for one or two days after its staff were infected.
Correction: An earlier version of the article said the number of deaths could go up to more than 46,000 by the end of April. It should be 4,600.