Hong Kong has reported a record 614 new cases of Covid-19, the vast majority of them the highly transmissible variant of Omicron, but authorities are sticking to their guns in the territory which is reverting to zero.
On Monday, authorities reported the city’s highest daily case count since the start of the pandemic, double the previous day’s total, with more than a third untraceable. Another 600 cases have been recorded as preliminary positive. The sharp rise was attributed to last week’s Lunar New Year festivities, although the global outbreak began late last year.
But government officials said they remained optimistic that Hong Kong’s tracing and containment strategies, which include instant building lockdowns and mandatory testing and quarantine, would bring the outbreak under control. They urged people to “minimize mixing and stay home”.
“If you continue with such gatherings, the epidemic will not stop, but if we all work together and minimize social gatherings, hopefully from today we can really suppress the spread of the disease. “said Center for Health Protection Comptroller Edwin Tsui.
Much of Hong Kong has already been shut down. Entertainment and public places – even open spaces such as playgrounds and beaches – have been closed or ordered to suspend operations. Restaurants are prohibited from serving after 6 p.m. and gatherings of more than four people are prohibited.
Charlie, a 26-year-old Hong Kong man from North Point, said he feared the outbreak was spiraling out of control and feared further restrictions. “It affects me a lot in my life. Like the increased restrictions and the locking of buildings, or the forcing [isolation] at Penny’s Bay [despite] no symptoms: it makes me worried every time I go out,” he said.
“I have taken the vaccine (including boosters), but there is no exception to this. These measures and controls affect my mental health a lot, and I wish to leave Hong Kong one day if I have any the opportunity. I tried to stay strong, because I know that life must go on.
The city government must be zero-Covid before mainland China agrees to open its borders with it, a step the Hong Kong government has prioritized over reopening to the rest of the world. Polls suggest that the public supports this approach.
It has maintained one of the best Covid responses in the world in terms of keeping case numbers low, but has also caused widespread frustration and confusion among the population with frequently changing and sometimes illogical measures.
Hong Kong’s policy of sending all positive cases to hospital has also strained resources, with CPH officials admitting on Monday that bed availability was “getting really tight”. More than 1,600 cases were in the infection control center at North Lantau Hospital, including two in critical condition.
In response to pressure on hospitals, some mild, asymptomatic or vaccinated Covid-19 patients would now be transferred to the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Center for recovery, officials said. Some close contacts would also be allowed to self-isolate at home instead of the centres.
Lawrence, a Hong Kong resident originally from overseas, said most people he knows “wouldn’t dream of getting tested and coming forward” due to the strict requirements and possible long separation from family, children and work, even if they were not sick. .
He said the government “is obsessed with getting back to zero Covid” in order to please Beijing, despite advances in vaccines and treatments dramatically reducing death rates.
“It’s overwhelming, after two years,” said Lawrence, who didn’t want his last name published. “This [was] a wonderful safe place while the rest of the world figures out what to do…but [the fear of ] admitting we were wrong means they’ll probably lock us up and then realize that Omicron can’t be controlled.
Hong Kong is also struggling with low vaccination rates among the elderly population, many of whom had heeded earlier advice that if there were no cases, it was best not to risk side effects. Authorities have renewed their call for all eligible people to get vaccinated. Hong Kong has now achieved an 80% double dose rate, but fewer than 32% of people aged 80 or over have received at least one.
Speaking to the Guardian from a vaccination center where he was receiving his booster, Lawrence said he seemed busy with people getting their first dose, suggesting some were now following the advice.
Professor Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, told the Guardian that Hong Kong was in the most difficult phase of its “dynamic zero” strategy, which allowed the city to relax when it was to zero but required an agile change for containment when there were cases.
“If you have cases in the community and you don’t realize it, and you haven’t gone to phase zero, then it’s going to be worse,” he said last week. “In Hong Kong, it’s going to be difficult to go back to zero.”
Cowling said the number of cases in Hong Kong was likely much higher than reported. Cowling noted the near-daily detections of unknown cases through the sewage monitoring process, which randomly targets around 100 of Hong Kong’s many high-rise buildings each day.