HONG KONG (REUTERS, NYTIMES, CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Monday (Feb 14) that the onslaught of coronavirus infections in the global financial hub has dealt a heavy blow and overwhelmed its capacity to deal with the epidemic as daily cases surge to record highs.
Daily infections have multiplied 13 times over the past two weeks, from about 100 cases at the start of February to more than 1,300 on Sunday (Feb 13), with the authorities scrambling to control the deepening outbreak.
Health authorities reported a record 2,071 infections on Monday, with 4,500 separate preliminary positive cases.
Mrs Lam, the city's chief executive, said her government would coordinate with Chinese officials to tackle the aggravating situation after China said it would help the city with testing, treatment and quarantine.
“The onslaught of the fifth wave of the epidemic has dealt a heavy blow to Hong Kong and overwhelmed the city’s capacity of handling,” she said, adding that the surge had lengthened the amount of time before infected patients could access isolation facilities.
“The situation is highly undesirable and the government feels worried and sorry about it,” she said.
Her top officials would coordinate with the central government to enhance Hong Kong’s testing and isolation facilities, and secure resources from rapid antigen kits and protective gear to fresh vegetables, she said.
Daily case numbers are now doubling every few days. On Sunday, health officials announced 1,347 confirmed new cases, and more than 2,000 preliminarily positive cases.
The city recorded eight Covid-19 deaths last week, the first since September.
Medical experts warn that the city could see 28,000 daily infections by the end of March, with the unvaccinated elderly a particular worry.
Hospital beds for Covid-19 patients in the global financial hub are already at 90 per cent occupancy, data from the city’s Hospital Authority showed, while isolation facilities are also near full capacity.
Hong Kong is prioritising elderly people, children and those in serious conditions in hospitals, said Dr Larry Lee, chief manager at the city’s Hospital Authority.
The city had previously required that all Covid-19 patients receive hospital treatment. The city has now begun telling those with mild cases to remain at home, Dr Lee said, adding that he did not know how many infected people might be stuck at home, but he estimated there were "thousands".
He said: "This is not an ideal decision, but at this critical moment we need to preserve our limited resources for patients who are most in need."
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has lowered the minimum age for receiving the China-made Sinovac vaccine to three years old, starting from Feb 15.
The secretary for food and health had earlier approved the Sinovac vaccine to cover individuals aged three and above following the advice of the government advisory panel on Covid-19 vaccines and considering the risks posed by the pandemic to the local community, as well as the benefits of lowering the age limit for the vaccine to cover children aged three to 17 outweigh the risks.
The government said that an interval of 28 days is required for children to receive the first and second doses of the Sinovac vaccine, same as for adults.
Since Jan 21, the government has made available Sinovac vaccine to children as young as five years old. From Feb 16, children of the same age group will be allowed to take the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the other Covid-19 vaccine available in the city. Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech jab is available for children aged 12 years and above.
Hong Kong has pursued an aggressive approach to stamping out the spread of the coronavirus, and for long stretches last year it saw only single-digit daily increases in new cases. But the spread of the Omicron variant has overwhelmed these defences.
Mrs Lam said the authorities would spare no effort to implement the “dynamic zero” coronavirus infection strategy in Hong Kong, which, like mainland China, seeks to curb outbreaks as soon as they occur, in contrast with many other places that are trying to live with Covid-19.
Hong Kong has recorded about 24,000 infections and more than 200 deaths, less than other similar major cities.
Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have estimated that the latest wave could kill more than 950 people by mid-June under the current level of social distancing restrictions. Over the past two years, Hong Kong has tallied just 221 Covid-19 deaths.
Last week, Hong Kong implemented its toughest social distancing measures to date, temporarily closing salons and houses of worship, and adding malls and grocery stores to a long list of public places that will require vaccination to enter.
On Saturday, Hong Kong officials met with a representative of China's central government in the mainland city of Shenzhen. Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee said after the meeting that there were no immediate plans to put Hong Kong under a lockdown that some mainland cities have enforced this year to stop Omicron outbreaks.
Mr Lee said the meeting covered the need to send mainland personnel to help increase testing capacity, but the details have yet to be determined. In recent days, some people have waited for hours in long lines to undergo mandatory testing orders.