Government officials and pathologists in Hong Kong are wondering if their city is now full of people infected with the Wuhan coronavirus after an infected couple and their daughter crisscrossed the city and avoided authorities.
Confirmed cases in Hong Kong have reached 15 with another 88 under medical observation as of Monday.
Revelations that two visitors from Wuhan, who fled one day before the provincial capital went into lockdown, arrived in Hong Kong on January 22 and have been moving around the city has caused panic.
The couple and their daughter had sustained coughing, fever and other symptoms and managed to evade temperature checks at the airport before moving around the city and possibly spreading the virus.
Local papers reported that the daughter of the Wuhan couple, a senior executive at the Hong Kong headquarters of the China-invested stoke broker Haitong Securities, helped them check into at least two luxury hotels across the city while knowing her parents were sick. For days the trio rubbed shoulders with people in busy shopping malls in Central, Admiralty and Tsim Sha Tsui.
Their “hotel-hopping” was not stopped until January 28 – almost a week after the couple flew into Hong Kong on Cathay Dragon flight KA 853 from Wuhan. Butlers at the Four Seasons Hong Kong in Central spotted the onset of their disease and alerted police and the Department of Health.
The couple and their daughter were bundled into ambulances by a medical team in protective gear after they refused to be transported. They tested positive for the virus the following day, with the daughter becoming the city’s first case of person-to-person infection.
The trio has been isolated in negative pressure wards at the Princess Margaret Hospital since then.
Ironically, the daughter, a Harvard-groomed investment banker at Haitong, is said to have a degree in biology.
Persistent interrogation by doctors laid bare more details about their trips throughout the city and places they visited, including two other luxury hotels.
The couple spent a total of six nights at the W hotel in West Kowloon and are also said to have stopped by the Ritz-Carlton hotel, which occupies the top 16 floors of the International Commerce Center, Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper. The Ritz-Carlton, however, has stressed that the couple were not staying guests at the hotel, nor did they dine at any of its restaurants or used its facilities.
The couple did visit a clinic on January 24 due to fevers and coughing, but left before doctors there could give them checks due to a “language barrier.”
Still, the patients’ recalcitrance in the subsequent etiology investigation has stumped the government, with medical experts scrambling to map more places the trio had been to when they were “on the run.”
Health officials were heckled during press conferences over the past weekend after admitting they had no legal power to force anyone suspected of being infected to seek medical attention.
Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan told reporters that the patients could have visited several shopping malls, restaurants and supermarkets in various districts. She added that those from Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province should go through home isolation for no less than 14 days, while anyone with symptoms should see a doctor immediately. The government would further enhance laboratory surveillance as well as quarantine of contacts of the patients, she said.
The fact that the couple could elude temperature checks all the way from Wuhan to Hong Kong has thrown the slack implementation of infection prevention measures into stark relief. There have been calls to amend local laws to criminalize those infected or carrying virus who refuse to be quarantined.
The case of the “super-spreaders” has further fueled the stigmatization of mainland Chinese living in or visiting the former British territory, with some frontline nurses and doctors already threatening a general strike if the government continues to allow mainlanders to enter the city.
On Monday, the Hong Kong government announced additional remedies, including closing several busy checkpoints along the border with mainland China and new tracking bracelets to be worn by those who have visited Hubei within the past two weeks so people can be strictly confined to their homes for isolation.
Two new quarantine centers in Kowloon and the New Territories are being readied as three facilities already in use are bursting at the seams with more visitors developing symptoms being put under observation.