Hong Kong health experts on Friday said the city needs to change its pandemic strategies to cope with the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases.
In recent weeks Hong Kong has been hit hard by a fifth wave of cases caused by the omicron variant, which is increasing pressure on the city’s already overburdened health system.
Since the pandemic began, the Hong Kong government has remained defiant, directing all positive cases to hospitals regardless of symptomatic severity. Omicron’s sharp rise in recent weeks, however, has triggered a deluge of cases, flooding the city’s hospitals.
Some health experts say a new direction is needed.
“We need to immediately pivot to a strategy that promotes home isolation for mild and asymptomatic cases,” said Dr. Karen Grepin, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. “The strategy should be risk-based to determine who is and who is not a good candidate for home isolation.”
But determining who can safely choose to do home isolation with mild symptoms must include careful vetting, Grepin told VOA.
“It will need to be accompanied by dedicated facilities for people who are not good candidates or who are unable to isolate at home,” she said.
Data show the omicron variant has an incubation period of about five days, is highly transmissible and causes less severe symptoms than some other coronavirus variants. But Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with a population of 7.5 million, adding to concerns about how quickly it can spread.
“Most people who catch COVID in the next few weeks will likely catch it at home, but this is mainly because this is where they spend most of the time,” Grepin said. “We may not be able to prevent all of it, but there is a lot we can do to reduce it, including mask-wearing at home, increasing ventilation, isolation of infected patients in rooms,” Grepin added.
Hong Kong is seeing daily COVID-19 records, with 6,116 cases on Thursday, surpassing the city’s previous high of 4,285 on Wednesday.
Friday saw 3,629 new infections, with 7,600 preliminary positive cases, and 10 new deaths.
The city’s current quarantine facilities are full and over 95% of hospital beds are occupied. But the government announced on Friday it has identified 20,000 new quarantine beds, Reuters reported.
In worrying scenes, hundreds of sick patients, including some elderly, were lying in beds outside Hong Kong’s hospitals in recent days, waiting to be admitted for treatment.
One health worker at Hong Kong’s Ruttonjee Hospital, who chose to remain anonymous, told VOA that the hospital is very busy but says there aren’t that many severe cases of COVID-19.
“I think there is [less than] 10 people who need to receive incubation care unit,” said the healthcare provider. “But not much confirmed cases are in respiratory distress. Most of them have light symptoms.”
In efforts to free up space, authorities say hospitalized patients may now leave quarantine and isolate at home seven days after a positive test if they test negative on a rapid antigen test.
David Chan, chairman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, criticized health officials for inadequate planning.
“The hospital authority doesn’t have a precautionary plan to handle such a large amount of patients,” he told Bloomberg. “With all their time, they didn’t come up with a comprehensive plan, didn’t communicate other government departments to come up with a plan for us to follow.”
Hong Kong’s hospital authority is a statutory body managing all government hospitals and health institutes in the city.
Up until January, everyday life in Hong Kong was relatively normal, with the city recording a low number of cases.
Hong Kong’s “zero-COVID” strategy, which is aligned with Beijing’s effort to control the pandemic across China, has seen authorities quickly clamp down on rare outbreaks in the city, with methods including contact tracing, social restrictions, mass testing and quarantine. The policy has had some success, while other parts of the world move toward ways of living with the virus.
But amid the omicron surge, Hong Kong has seen nearly 17,000 cases since the beginning of 2022, greater than the total number of infections in 2020 and 2021 combined.
The escalating crisis has even seen a rare call from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has ordered the city’s authorities to take control of the situation.
Earlier this week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam ruled out a citywide lockdown but did unveil new measures. Residents must have proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to enter various premises starting from next week, mask wearing is a requirement in public, and fines for breaking social distancing regulations have doubled to $1,283.
But health experts say authorities must continue to focus on boosting the city’s unvaccinated groups. According to government data, the number of vaccinated residents age 80 and older stands at just 41.16%, while those from 70-79 is 70%
“It is never too late to vaccinate high priority groups to reduce mortality,” Dr. Grepin told VOA.
Dr. David Owens, an honorary assistant clinical professor at the University of Hong Kong, previously told VOA that vaccinating high priority groups should be the “primary focus.”
Owens also argued that implementing a rapid testing strategy would also help break transmission cycles.
“When people get symptoms, they would be encouraged to test themselves. They could isolate at home for a minimum of five days or until they had a negative test, whichever was the latest,” he said.
Lam, Hong Kong’s top administrator, recently vowed to procure millions of rapid antigen testing kits to improve detection, providing each resident one test kit.
The Hong Kong leader announced on Friday the upcoming chief executive elections will be postponed until May, citing the health crisis in the city. The elections were scheduled to be held in March.