Large crowds continued to flock to Hong Kong’s shopping malls and markets over the weekend even as health authorities appealed for more social distancing and defended a tougher Covid-19 testing regime, saying compliance was necessary to improve the situation and help ease restrictions after the Lunar New Year period.
The city confirmed 27 new infections on Sunday as Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee urged the public to minimise gatherings over the holiday season, regardless of the recent downward trend in daily cases.
Six of the new cases were untraceable and all three imported ones were from Indonesia, but much of the focus was on the local case of a pregnant woman who could face legal action after evading quarantine despite living together with an infected person.
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Authorities locked down Hoi Yu House, Hoi Fu Court, at 2 Hoi Ting Road in Mong Kok, at 7pm, while Wai Lee Building at 997 King’s Road in Quarry Bay was cordoned off 30 minutes later. Infections had been reported in both buildings. Cheong Lok Mansion at 1G-1K Baker Street in Hung Hom was also placed under lockdown at 8pm, with the restriction expected to be lifted at 6.30am on Monday.
The city’s overall infection tally stood at 10,635, with 186 related deaths. About 20 people tested preliminary-positive for the virus on Sunday.
The head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan expressed concerns about people letting their guard down during the festive season.
“The Lunar New Year market and the festival itself is a worry for us. Everybody will hope to have gatherings with friends and family,” she said. “But some of the recent cases we have seen are people who have taken part in gatherings, some as large as 20 people, so we hope people rethink whether they absolutely must go to any New Year parties.”
Despite pleas from officials for residents to avoid large gatherings, crowds packed shopping districts such as Causeway Bay and Mong Kok over the final weekend ahead of the Lunar New Year, with long lines forming in malls and outside restaurants.
The pregnant woman, 32, has been confirmed as infected along with a family member. They live in a subdivided flat at 159 Reclamation Street in Yau Ma Tei and she evaded health authorities when they arrived on January 30 to take residents into quarantine. Officials have reserved the right to take legal action against the woman or a relative who warned her, according to Chuang.
“She had stayed outside during the few hours we arranged neighbours in the subunits [of the flat] to enter quarantine,” she said. “A household member had told her to stay outside.”
Nine of the woman’s neighbours were sent into isolation.
The woman, who is 26 weeks pregnant, tested negative for the coronavirus during a mandatory screening at her building on January 31. She began to display symptoms on Wednesday and only revealed her contact history to medical staff when she went to Kwong Wah Hospital on Friday with a mild fever and chills, where she was again tested for Covid-19.
She had previously visited Queen Elizabeth Hospital for a regular check-up on Monday and Thursday, said Dr Linda Yu Wai-ling, a chief manager at the Hospital Authority. No medical staff or patients at either hospital were deemed close contacts as the woman had worn a mask during the visits.
“We will also suggest 159 Reclamation Street be placed under a mandatory testing order again,” Chuang said.
Five patients who shared a ward with an 83-year-old at Yan Chai Hospital who has tested preliminary positive for Covid-19 will also have to be sent into quarantine.
Cases continue to emerge at construction sites, and regular testing of workers at the construction site for the airport’s third runway will begin on Tuesday as 15 labourers have been confirmed as infected.
A family member of a construction worker helping to build the runway was among the latest infections, taking the size of that cluster to 28 cases.
Secretary for Development Michael Wong Wai-lun said the government was aiming to test all the city’s construction workers, who numbered as many 200,000, by the end of this month.
To root out hidden cases, authorities last week announced they would carry out daily lockdowns and on Saturday tightened the criteria to just a single infection in any residential building, whether untraceable or linked.
The area locked down in Hung Hom is surrounded by funeral homes and related business. Kowloon City district councillor Pius Yum Kwok-tung expected some funerals would be affected on Monday. An employee at one service provider was seen driving a hearse away shortly before the lockdown began to minimise any possible disruption to business in the morning. Yum warned residents to avoid hosting any gatherings as the visitors could end up stuck in the flat overnight.
Funeral Business Association chairman Ng Yiu-tong said that as long as the lockdown ended by about 7am on Monday, the 10 businesses in the area would not be disrupted.
“But if they can’t or need to postpone it to 11am or noon, then people will be affected,” Ng said, adding that operators could experience difficulties claiming bodies from hospitals if they could not get the documents from their shops.
Chan defended the lockdown strategy, noting that 18,000 residents at about 20 locations had been tested so far, uncovering 15 cases for a positive rate of 0.08 per cent, which was “not low when compared to other programmes such as [last September’s] voluntary mass screening in the community”.
She added: “Plus, with zero cases found [through certain lockdowns], it is more of a relief. It could also be more helpful to make us see clearly the next steps … of taking infection control measures at high-risk areas.”
Overnight lockdowns of a building in Tuen Mun and another in To Kwa Wan were lifted in the morning. No cases emerged after 482 residents were screened.
Separately, the health chief expressed hope that a government advisory panel would meet as early as this week to discuss whether to recommend the use of the vaccine by Chinese drug maker Sinovac Biotech.
“We hope to try our best and further contain the virus so that conditions can be created to resume a relatively normal life after the Lunar New Year … with some businesses resuming,” Chan told a morning radio programme. “But if there are outbreaks following the holidays, it would be unsatisfactory. We urge members of the public to reduce the number of gatherings, and try to shorten the meeting time, while also wearing masks except when eating.”
The government began tightening social-distancing rules again in early December last year, including banning evening dine-in services at restaurants, capping the number of people allowed to gather in public at two, and closing thousands of businesses such as gyms, bars, beauty parlours and cinemas.
With Hong Kong expecting its first batch of 1 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by late February, Chan said officials had been working to ensure their arrival would meet the government’s target of administering the first inoculations after the holiday.
She also rejected suggestions that the government was lowering its standards so it could push ahead with the Sinovac jabs. Health authorities earlier decided to exempt Sinovac from having to publish phase-three clinical data in a medical journal, requiring instead the company only provide the information it had submitted to the World Health Organization.
“We believe our medical experts will review all the data available carefully for every type of vaccine, and we hope members of the public will have confidence in our expert advisory panel,” Chan said.
Additional reporting by Victor Ting
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