HONG KONG - All recovered Covid-19 patients in Hong Kong now have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a designated facility after being discharged from hospital.
The new rule, which took effect on Wednesday (Oct 27), was part of tightened measures as officials continue to press for reopening with the mainland.
In a statement on Tuesday night, the government described it as part of its proactive anti-epidemic strategy to maintain "zero infection" - a strategy similar to that on the mainland and Macau which has drawn flak from some foreign business leaders in the community given the tough on-arrival rules.
"As patients who have recovered from infection recently may still carry the virus, the latest arrangement would further reduce the risk of such patients bringing the virus into the community to a minimum. It would also lower the risk of the virus spreading in the community due to possible repositive situations," the statement said.
The government also went further to tighten conditions for discharge from hospital.
Symptomatic patients will now need to have been afebrile or not have a fever for at least three days, show significant improvements in respiratory symptoms and lung X-rays. It must also be at least 10 days since the onset of illness before discharge.
Symptomatic and asymptomatic patients will also need to take two tests at least 24 hours apart. For an asymptomatic patient, 10 days must pass after the individual's first positive Covid-19 test. The government said the Department of Health will issue quarantine orders to patients in accordance with its powers under the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance, and these patients will be sent to the North Lantau Hospital Hong Kong Infection Control Centre for isolation.
Professor Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, believes the new measures will not make Hong Kong any safer.
"I am not aware of any evidence that it will make Hong Kong any safer. It seems disproportionate and unfair to recovering cases who may have already been away from their families and jobs for weeks and are now required to spend another two weeks in isolation," he said.
But respiratory medicine expert Leung Chi Chiu said that while the chances of discharged patients re-infecting the community are "rather small", this might not be the case with future coronavirus variants.
He noted that Hong Kong had resumed nearly all domestic economic activity after about five months of no local transmission, so there was little tolerance for leakage of any infectious source in the community.
"On the mainland, such repositive cases will trigger a whole series of control measures. Even in Hong Kong, we dare not omit extensive mandatory contact testing for the recent incidents of repositive cases in our community," Dr Leung said.
"To allow progressive reopening of quarantine-free travel with the mainland, we have to minimise the chance of any unnecessary disruptions or panics caused by these repositive cases," he added.
When asked if the quarantine system would be able to handle the load in the event of an outbreak, Prof Cowling said the additional 14-day period for recovered patients could be served in a hotel or at the Penny's Bay facility if isolation wards were full.
Dr Leung said capacity was not an issue given that Hong Kong recorded only a few imported cases daily. Still, he noted that a single case could disrupt the city's control plans.
Hong Kong's decision to tighten discharge rules for recovered Covid-19 patients follows disquiet, particularly in the foreign business and expatriate community, over the tough quarantine rules as other countries like Singapore and in Europe are reopening, having opted to treat the disease as endemic.
In a move that would standardise rules, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday announced that the government would soon remove most exemptions that currently allow some groups to skip mandatory hotel quarantine stays of up to 21 days. Only emergency and essential services, such as cross-boundary truck drivers, would henceforth be allowed exemptions, she said.
Currently, those exempted include diplomats who are allowed to quarantine at home and directors of Hong Kong-listed firms carrying out activities recognised by the authorities.
Hong Kong on Wednesday recorded five imported cases, bringing the total tally in the territory so far to over 12,300 and 213 deaths - figures that are among the world's lowest.