Workers in elderly care homes will be required to take coronavirus tests every two weeks. Photo: Social Welfare Department

Hong Kong is to run regular coronavirus tests on high-risk groups, including elderly care home workers, wet market stall owners and public transport drivers, to prepare for the possible “fourth-wave” epidemic outbreak in winter.

“The third-wave epidemic has been declining from its peak in late July although the progress was slow,” Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said on Friday. The fourth-wave epidemic would probably occur in winter and could be more serious than the third-wave.

About 5,000 people from high-risk groups – which include workers at wet markets and restaurants and in the transport sector, as well as those working in essential facilities such as the container terminal and slaughterhouses – would be tested each day, she added.

From Friday, staff of elderly care homes will be tested every two weeks. Others will also be tested regularly.

Chan said the government strongly encouraged people to take the voluntary tests.

Tommy Cheung, a Liberal Party lawmaker representing the catering sector, said some restaurant staff might prefer not to take the tests because they feared losing their income if they tested positive. The government should pay their wages if these workers became infected, Cheung said.

Fernando Cheung, a Labour Party lawmaker representing the social welfare sector, said ramping up staff testing alone would not reduce the risk of infection. He said some care home employees worked in more than one facility and lived in less than ideal conditions.

Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said a fourth wave could happen before winter if there were loopholes in anti-epidemic measures. If the outbreak happened during the winter peak influenza season, the medical system would face a heavy burden.

Some places have already launched routine tests on high-risk groups to prevent a large-scale outbreak.

On August 11, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, the Building and Construction Authority, the Economic Development Board and the Health Promotion Board jointly announced that the city-state would run routine tests on workers in high-risk groups. On August 18, the ministry said workers would be barred from working if their employers did not schedule them for testing.

Singapore’s Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said in early September that more than 200,000 people in the high-risk groups were tested every two weeks. 

Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection said Friday that only three cases were recorded in the 24 hours on Thursday, including one imported case and two local infections which could be linked to previous cases.

The number of local infections per day in Hong Kong has dropped to single digits recently but cases with unknown sources have still been reported.

On Wednesday, three of the six local infections had unknown sources. They included a 52-year-old woman who lived and worked in Mong Kok, a 57-year-old woman who worked in Kwun Tong and a 24-year-old unemployed man in Tin Shui Wai.

“It’s a proactive plan of the government to prepare for the fourth wave,” said Chui Tak-yi, the Undersecretary for Food and Health

“The fourth wave or the winter wave may come very likely, and also we have to be well prepared for an even bigger number of new cases per day, up to hundreds per day.” ,Chui said the government would continue to expand treatment facilities as it prepares for the worst-case scenario.

The Hong Kong government also said on Friday that more quarantine facilities were being built, with 4,000 places to be added by the end of the year.

It said the third and fourth phases of Penny’s Bay in north-eastern Lantau Island would be completed by the end of this year, providing 2,000 quarantine units. Another 2,000 units will be in the Lei Yue Mun Resort and some hotels rented by the government.

Meanwhile, the Hospital Authority said it would suspend the operation of the community treatment facility at AsiaWorld-Expo because the Covid situation had been stabilising in Hong Kong. Since the facility opened on August 1, almost 700 people have been treated at the 500-bed facility.

At the same time, the government plans to build a temporary hospital with about 800 bends next to AsiaWorld-Expo. The project, assigned by the central government and managed by the Shenzhen government, will be completed within 4 months.

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