Hong Kong considers mass testing as COVID battle intensifies

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s coronavirus battle intensified on Thursday as authorities reported new cases had multiplied 60 times so far this month, and the city’s leader said citywide testing was being considered in the global financial hub.

Hospitals were overwhelmed by some patients, including the elderly, who were left lying on beds outside in cold and sometimes rainy weather, in horrific scenes that prompted authorities in the Chinese-controlled city to apologize.

Schools, gyms, cinemas and most public places are closed and many office workers are working from home. But many residents have grown weary of the draconian restrictions imposed to guard against the pandemic, even as most other major cities in the world adjust to the virus.

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Health authorities reported 6,116 confirmed cases on Thursday, up from 4,285 the day before, with another 6,300 initial positive cases. This brings the total number since January to more than 16,600. There were 24 new deaths.

The jump in cases is the biggest test yet of the city’s “dynamic zero COVID” policy, but leader Carrie Lam said this week that the city “cannot give in to the virus.”

And some media reports, citing anonymous sources, said the government plans to test up to one million people per day as of March. Those who do not comply will be fined HKD10,000 ($1282).

“City-wide testing for the virus is a plan we are now studying,” Lam told reporters later, while welcoming the arrival of several health experts on the Chinese mainland to help with the outbreak.

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And local media quoted her as saying that 300,000 tests could be conducted per day by the end of this month.

The government did not respond to a request for comment.

“Because of the large number of cases, we need to speed up admissions to hospitals and community isolation facilities,” Undersecretary of the Ministry of Food and Health Choi Tak Yee told reporters. “The government is trying to ease all these bottlenecks.”

The authorities said that quarantine facilities had reached their capacity and hospital beds were filled to more than 90 percent. In a move to free up the family for isolation, Lam said late Wednesday she had spoken to local hotel owners and planned to provide up to 10,000 hotel rooms for COVID-19 patients.

Retailers are taking a beating

Lam’s comments came after Chinese President Xi Jinping told Hong Kong’s leaders that their “overriding mission” is to stabilize and control the coronavirus. Read more

An increase in the number of cases and tighter rules have taken their toll on the city’s retail sector, with the Retail Management Association (HKRMA) on Thursday saying retail traffic was down 40% from December.

“If the epidemic worsens and if rents stay at the level now … we will not survive,” said Annie Tse, president of HKRMA. “Since the protests and COVID, it’s been nearly three years, how much money can we burn?” she said, referring to anti-government demonstrations in 2019.

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The association, which represents about 9,000 retail outlets and employs more than half of the local retail workforce, has urged the government to compel developers to offer rent relief to tenants and include the sector in a fund to combat the pandemic.

HKRMA expects steady year-on-year retail sales growth in the January-June period, and said growth will easily slip into negative territory in the second half if the situation continues.

Hong Kong has adopted the same strategy of “dynamic zero” for the coronavirus that mainland China used to suppress the outbreak.

But the size and speed of the highly contagious Omicron variant has left authorities scrambling. Hospitals are running at or above capacity and long queues have formed outside testing centers, with some people waiting for hours.

Authorities have said they can no longer continue testing and isolation mandates, resulting in a backlog that cannot keep pace with daily infection numbers.

China said it would help Hong Kong boost its testing, treatment and quarantine capabilities, and secure resources from rapid antigen kits and protective equipment to fresh vegetables.

Hong Kong has recorded about 35,000 infections since the beginning of the epidemic, and more than 250 deaths, far fewer than other major cities of similar size.

However, medical experts have warned that daily cases could rise to 28,000 by the end of March amid concerns about rising levels of vaccine frequency among the elderly.

(1 dollar = 7.8006 Hong Kong dollars)

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Additional reporting by Farah Master, Claire Jim, Anne-Marie Rowntree, Donny Kwok, Tweeny Siew, Marius Zaharia; Editing by Mark Porter and David Holmes

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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