Coronavirus: first Nepal Airlines flight to Hong Kong since ban brings nine of city’s 11 new Covid-19 cases, while local resident adds to untraceable tally

Victor Ting
·5-min read

Nine passengers arriving on a Nepal Airlines flight and a returning resident who twice tested negative during quarantine were among Hong Kong’s 11 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, prompting authorities to ban the carrier yet again, just four days after it completed a two-week suspension.

Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, confirmed at a press conference that flights from Nepal’s national airline would be barred for another two weeks, through November 4.

“The nine cases were not related, except they [were] on the same flight to Hong Kong,” she said of those arriving on Nepal Airlines RA4009. It was the carrier’s first flight to the city since being banned on October 3 after six passengers tested positive upon arrival.

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Thursday’s other imported case was from Pakistan, while the sole local infection, which authorities have been unable to trace, helped push the city’s overall tally to 5,280, with 105 related deaths. Fewer than 10 people tested preliminary positive.

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Chuang said the local patient, a 38-year-old woman, travelled to Italy and Switzerland about a month ago, but concluded a September 16-29 quarantine after returning and tested negative for the virus twice during that period.

The Tung Chung resident had a foot massage and ate with family, including a visit to a hotpot restaurant, while infectious, and jogged with a mask from her home to a local pier every night, according to the health officer.

“It’s more likely she caught the disease locally, as she has been back for some time,” Chuang said. “Because she was in the community for quite a long time after the onset of her symptoms … we won’t rule out more cases to come.”

The patient’s son and a relative have already been sent to hospital after feeling unwell, while other residents in her block and staff at the restaurants she frequented will be tested.

The latest flight restrictions followed a 14-day ban on Air India’s route into the city from Delhi, Air Vistara from Chennai, and Cathay Dragon’s Kuala Lumpur service after infected passengers were flown in from India either directly or via transit in Malaysia.

So far, the Air India route has been suspended three times.

Under emergency health regulations tightened on September 15, the city will ban a route for 14 days if at least five passengers on a single flight are identified as infected upon arrival, or if three or more are found to have the coronavirus on two consecutive flights from the same location.

Both India and Nepal are on Hong Kong’s list of high-risk countries for Covid-19. Those flying in from such places are required to test negative for Covid-19 before departure, and to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival in the city. Eleven other nations are on the list.

India has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, with more than 7.7 million infections and 116,616 deaths. Meanwhile, Nepal has recorded 144,872 cases and 791 deaths.

Chinese University’s Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a government adviser on the pandemic, believed the imported cases showed the city’s border strategy was working and successfully catching those infections.

He said something had gone wrong in the testing done in Nepal, as travellers had to obtain negative results before boarding. “Maybe their tests are not accurate or sensitive enough, or perhaps people didn’t take it seriously enough when giving samples.”

But Hui acknowledged the limitations of the Hong Kong government. “There’s not much we can do beyond reimposing the two-week ban. After all, Nepal is a sovereign country, and these travellers are Hong Kong residents returning home.”

Infectious diseases private specialist Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan called for a tougher response, including an indefinite ban until the health crisis in the South Asian country had stabilised. “Desperate times call for desperate measures … We need to get a grip on the imported cases as our own medical resources are stretched too.”

New cases in Hong Kong have been on a downward trend over the past week, though the daily tally has been fluctuating between single and double digits.

The government this week further relaxed social-distancing rules to permit local tour groups of up to 30 people, while as many as 50 would be allowed to attend wedding ceremonies – up from 20 – provided no food or drink was served. The new arrangements come into effect on Friday.

The Labour Department, meanwhile, announced on Thursday a second round of free virus testing for foreign domestic workers awaiting new employment in the city starting from next Tuesday, and this will last until November 21.

The government also said it would purchase an additional 100,000 doses of flu vaccines for high-risk groups, on top of the 878, 000 doses ordered earlier.

Health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee revealed to lawmakers on Wednesday that the expenditure for the 878,000 flu vaccines this year had more than doubled to HK$83 million from HK$40.8 million last year when 815,00 vaccines were ordered.

The Department of Health later said the price increase was a result of a surge in demand for flu vaccines worldwide amid the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as heightened costs and difficulties in production and shipment under social-distancing measures.

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