Hong Kong Health Officials Fear ‘Tsunami’ of New Cases Due to Lunar New Year Travels
© AP Photo / Vincent YuThe skyline of the business district is silhouetted at sunset in Hong Kong Monday, July 13, 2020
© AP Photo / Vincent Yu
China’s southern Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has struggled to keep several small COVID-19 outbreaks under control as clusters of both Omicron and Delta variants continue to spread. Health experts have warned that the semi-autonomous city cannot handle the same mass testing regimen that has worked in mainland cities.
As China celebrated the Spring Festival and the beginning of the Year of the Tiger on Tuesday, health officials in Hong Kong reported a new surge in infections and, worryingly, a record number of untraceable transmissions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
After several days of double-digit totals, the city on Tuesday reported 129 new infections, 102 of which were locally transmitted and 27 of which arrived from outside the city. However, of the local cases, 22 were of unknown origin. Because an estimated 10,000 members of the city’s disciplined forces have been keeping up a rigorous contact-tracing program, officials are keeping track of how clusters slowly spread through people in the same apartment complex, workplace, or who ate at the same restaurant.
However, with the Spring Festival season in full swing, and more than a billion trips expected across the country over the next few weeks, Hong Kong officials are afraid of a “tsunami” of new infections and have begged residents to stay home.
“The chance of a mass outbreak has reached a critical level and it could pound in the manner of a tsunami any time,” Hospital Authority chief executive Tony Ko Pat-sing said in a blog post, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
“We urge, yet again, that everyone should try to stay home and avoid gatherings involving more than one family,” Ko said. “Let’s hold this defense line together.”
The outbreaks in Hong Kong have roughly paralleled those on the Chinese mainland, but unlike the mainland, it has not yet come under control. According to the city’s Health Department, officials recorded 994 new cases between January 14 and January 29.
Mainland cities have been able to go into total lockdown and systematically test their entire populations very quickly with Zhengzhou testing 12.5 million in just six hours on January 11. In others, less restrictive lockdowns have barred some forms of travel and congregation, and ahead of the Spring Festival travel season, the government unveiled a massive rapid testing and screening service at rail stations and airports to help block transmission out of cities with outbreaks.
The mainland’s efforts have been effective: on Tuesday, the China National Health Commission reported just 66 new cases on the mainland.
“The city’s daily testing capacity is about 100,000,” Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said on Hong Kong radio on January 10. “If we want to implement universal testing, we may have to invite the mainland to assist.”
Because of its strict quarantining and testing measures - which Beijing has dubbed “Zero Covid” - China has largely been spared the anguish of other nations’ outbreaks, suffering just 123,245 cases since December 2019 and 4,636 deaths.