Hong Kong authorities warn of potential “exponential growth” in coronavirus cases

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Since Sunday, 65 new patients have been diagnosed, including 31 cases transmitted locally in what has been called the “third wave” of a pandemic in the global financial center.

Taxi drivers, restaurant workers, an employee of a medical clinic and a resident of a retirement home – among the people most vulnerable to the virus and likely to spread it – were diagnosed.

“It is possible that there may be a major epidemic,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable diseases division at the Hong Kong Health Protection Center (CHP), on Wednesday. “There could be a sudden exponential growth of cases. ”

Since the virus began to spread worldwide at the start of the year, Hong Kong has recorded only 1,324 cases of coronavirus and seven deaths linked to the virus.

The city’s success in containing Covid-19 has been attributed to the government’s vigilant application of quarantine for arrivals abroad, effective contact tracing, and residents’ willingness to practice good hygiene, to wear masks and to practice social distancing.While the new workload and total number of people diagnosed with Covid-19 is very low compared to countries where the pandemic is rife, such as the United States and Brazil, experts say, the latest increase in cases shows that despite anti epidemic control, the virus still represents a threat.

“This virus will find every flaw in your armor,” said Dr. Sarah Borwein, a Hong Kong-based doctor experienced in infectious diseases and epidemiology. “We have seen it in Beijing, Singapore, South Korea and now in Israel, Australia and elsewhere.”

Control measures worked

Before Sunday, Hong Kong had spent three weeks without any case of people contracting the virus locally, with the exception of some cases directly related to imported cases, for example people living in the same house.

Life inside the city had mostly returned to normal, even as the virus was ravaging other parts of the world. Bars and restaurants have been open for weeks, although with limited capacity, and gatherings of up to 50 people have been allowed since June 19.

Restrictions still apply to incoming travelers. Almost all newcomers to the territory must undergo a health examination and a saliva test in the deep throat at a government facility at AsiaWorld-Expo, a huge convention center near the airport.

People who test negative must spend 14 days in quarantine – either in a public establishment or at home with a surveillance bracelet – checking themselves regularly for any sign of virus and communicating the results to the competent authorities. Positive cases are usually transferred to local hospitals and their close contacts are sent to isolation centers.

Until this week, health officials had been able to identify and isolate the relatively small number of local cases. However, the recent increase in local transmission has triggered warnings of an epidemic in the community.

“Since last weekend, the epidemic situation in Hong Kong has changed rapidly and the situation has become very critical,” said Wong Ka-hing, controller of the Health Protection Center (CHP), on Tuesday.

Officials here have said the government is now seriously considering revoking the measures lifted in late June as the cases have calmed, such as limiting the number of people allowed to gather in public, closing bars, and forcing restaurants to cut back further. capabilities.

Among the new cases, a number are linked to a 59-year-old man who works in two restaurants in the city, including one which is popular with taxi drivers. As of Wednesday, at least four drivers had been infected by the restaurant worker, but it is not known how he got the virus. One case concerned a resident of a retirement home, which prompted the authorities to send residents and staff identified as close contacts to the quarantine facilities.

After a pilot was confirmed to have contracted the virus over the weekend, authorities moved quickly to introduce mandatory testing for crew members arriving on planes and ships. However, none of the new cases have been linked to the infected pilot.

As of Wednesday, all air crews arriving in town must provide samples of deep throat saliva, spitting in a cup. Previously, they only asked to fill out a health declaration, to wear masks in public and to carry out temperature checks twice a day. They are still exempt from the 14-day quarantine period imposed on all international passengers arriving in the city, as this would risk paralyzing these industries and making short-term city travel almost impossible.

Sophia Chan, secretary of the Hong Kong Department of Food and Health, said the government was also considering using hotels to quarantine foreign domestic workers arriving in the city. Several assistants flying to Hong Kong from the Philippines and Indonesia – who have confirmed more than 50,000 and 68,000 cases respectively – have been positive in the past two weeks, said Chan.

Last year, there were nearly 400,000 homemakers living in Hong Kong, according to government statistics. Legally, they have to live with their employer, but Chan says the apartments in Hong Kong may be too small to have what she called “effective quarantine.”

Living with the virus

Experts say the sudden resumption of new cases in Hong Kong shows how difficult it is to control the coronavirus.

“For the past three months or so, the situation has been fairly calm here,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, director of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong. “We were in a relatively safe bubble and we progressed towards a more normal level of activity. And I think in this situation, you know, you can start hoping, oh, maybe it’s over and so on, but these cases remind us that Covid remains as contagious as ever. ”

Fukuda and others say that the Hong Kong government, like almost all authorities around the world, is trying to “find the right balance. ”

So far, the government has done a good job in minimizing the number of infections and preventing the emergence of local clusters. But public health officials here have been optimistic about the possibility of new outbreaks in the future, adopting a “delete and lift” policy: adopt virus removal measures as cases increase and lift them to as the number decreases.

But eliminating the risk completely may not be possible, not least because of Hong Kong’s dependence on the outside world. Travel restrictions may have contributed to slowing the spread of the coronavirus, it is not possible to impose a general ban on people entering and leaving an international financial and commercial capital like Hong Kong.

“We cannot be an island where we keep everyone out of the way,” said Dr. John Nicholls, clinical professor of pathology at the University of Hong Kong.

“We need people to bring equipment and food, we are not completely independent,” said Nicholls. “We just have to recognize that we will have to live with this virus because I think a much longer period than we originally thought. “

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