Hong Kong to focus on protecting lives of elderly, switching gears from mass testing plan

A patient being moved at a makeshift Covid-19 treatment area outside a hospital in Hong Kong. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Hong Kong will now prioritise elderly lives in its fight against Covid-19, as the fifth wave of the pandemic triggers rising deaths and overloads the hospital system, with officials still finding the “best time” to launch a mass testing exercise.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Wednesday (March 9) the switching of gears in the strategy to curb the fast-spreading outbreaks led by the Omicron variant as the death toll climbs, with seniors accounting for most of the deaths.

Speaking at length for the first time in about two weeks since she announced the mass testing plan last month, Mrs Lam said many of those who died were aged 80 and above, had underlying medical conditions and more than half had stayed in residential care homes.

“We must spare no effort in protecting the lives of the elderly. We also want to enhance their health condition so we have taken on the advice given by mainland experts, in particular, Professor Liang Wannian has been in Hong Kong for over a week and he has been working non-stop to help us. And so at this point, our focus should be on reducing severe cases, deaths and the spread of the disease,” she said.

Mrs Lam was referring to one of China’s top Covid-19 strategy officials who is also an epidemiologist.

Hong Kong, which adopts a zero-Covid strategy like the mainland, had managed to stave off outbreaks for most of last year with flight bans and tough quarantine rules.

Testing and isolation had been the backbone of the strategy but this has failed to keep up with the surge in cases, prompting a mass testing proposal and talk of a lockdown.

Mrs Lam said officials are working out details of mass testing, but admitted that “this is not our top priority now” and the government will roll it out when it is most effective to do so.

She added that at this juncture, “there is no point in arguing about whether we are adopting the zero-Covid approach or to live with the virus”. 

“I can tell you for sure that the Hong Kong government will definitely not stop trying to contain the virus... Being an inseparable part of China, we will definitely follow the directives from the highest order to contain the virus.” 

As of Wednesday, more than 2,600 people had died since the end of December last year when the latest surge began. About 70 per cent of the fatalities were those aged 80 and above, with about 48 per cent of this group still unvaccinated.

The situation is compounded by the fact that about 710, or 89 per cent, of all elderly care homes, have infections involving over 24,000 residents and staff. More than 1,400 deaths have been reported in these homes. 

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Mrs Lam said an additional 9,000 hospital beds will be reserved for Covid-19 patients. 

Officials will “put infected patients in hospitals centrally” and “focus our resources in saving patients and preventing their conditions from deteriorating into severe or even critical cases, to prevent them from death”, she said.

Other measures include designating hospitals to treat only Covid-19 patients, and setting up isolation and occasional care facilities with medical supervision for elderly patients with stabilised or mild conditions.

“At each of these occasional care centres, we need to have sufficient healthcare staff and carers. That’s why I’ve asked private hospitals to give us assistance,” said Mrs Lam. 

So far, Hong Kong has logged more than 580,000 cases with over 2,600 deaths.  

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