Hong Kong on high alert as Covid-19 cluster in public housing estate grows

The government has ordered civil servants to work from home as much as possible from Tuesday, Jan 25, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG - The city is on high alert after daily Covid-19 figures breached the triple-digit mark for the second day in a row, with infections of both the Omicron and Delta variants reported in the community, including a swathe of public housing in Kwai Chung Estate in the New Territories.

The government has ordered civil servants to work from home as much as possible from Tuesday (Jan 25).

"Reducing the flow of people in government buildings and offices will help contain the epidemic," the government said in a statement. It also appealed to other employers to allow their staff to work from home too.

So far, about 230 residents in Kwai Chung Estate have tested positive, either preliminarily or otherwise, and the cases are now the biggest cluster in the territory.

The cluster was initially traced to one block, Yat Kwai House, where around 100 people had tested positive. Cases were soon reported in another block, Ying Kwai House. Both blocks - which have more than 2,700 residents - were put under a five-day lockdown at the weekend.

The lockdown was a departure from the usual overnight operations during which the authorities would carry out mandatory testing of residents.

It was also the first time that the city's government had to resort to a longer lockdown to curb transmission, instead of sending everyone to quarantine camps which are filling up fast.

Officials are now racing against time to test more than 35,000 residents.

Health authorities on Monday reported 109 confirmed cases, of which 98 were classified as local infections, six imported, and another five listed as untraceable or source unknown.

This is the second straight day of daily cases hitting the three-digit mark as the territory posted 140 new cases on Sunday, an 18-month high.

The Kwai Chung cluster comes after the authorities last week decided to cull thousands of hamsters when some samples had pets that were infected.

A pet shop chain selling the hamsters and other small animals such as rabbits and chinchillas, had a salesperson who was infected with the Delta variant. Later, a customer and her family were also infected.

As at Saturday, more than 2,500 animals, including 2,200 hamsters, had been put down, despite a public outcry.

The growing number of cases is testing the limits of Hong Kong's ability to contain the virus quickly as vaccination rates are not ideal.

Since the vaccination programme started in February 2021, officials have struggled to get residents to go for their jabs. So far, 78 per cent of the city's 7.4 million population have had their first Covid-19 vaccine jab, and 71 per cent have been fully vaccinated with two doses.

But the vaccination rate plunges to 29 per cent for those aged over 80, and 58 per cent for those aged 70 to 79.

"Pushing our community to live normally with the virus at this stage is asking for disaster," said respiratory medicine expert Leung Chi Chiu in a Twitter post.

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