Visitors queue at a community testing center in Hong Kong. There are worries that the mutant virus might have slipped through. Photo: Miguel Candela Poblacion/Anadolu Agency

Hong Kong’s Executive Council has approved a legal framework to give officials the power to seal off areas hit by Covid outbreaks for up to seven days and until tests are conducted on people in affected areas. The move comes as the city returns to tight Covid restrictions amid a new spike in infections.

Under the new Prevention and Control of Disease (Compulsory Testing for Certain Persons) Regulation, people will be required to stay in their domiciles until all test results are returned, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said in a media briefing on Tuesday.

“Basically, we want to stop the movement of these persons so that [those] who are suspected to have a risk of transmitting the disease to others would be restricted,” Chan said.

Health officials would make risk assessments and determine which areas need to be sealed off and for how long to stop virus transmissions, Chan said. If the areas were sealed off for more than 12 hours, the government would provide food and basic necessities to residents, she added.

People would be allowed to leave the area under approval only if they had special medical needs, Chan said.

The decision was made after 18 people were found to be infected on different floors in block 8 at the city’s Kwai Shing West Estate between Sunday and Monday.

According to the Centre for Health Protection, most of those infected were living on the block’s fifth floor. They have been quarantined since Monday.

The estate’s outbreak demonstrated the need for people to stay in their premises until all test results were completed, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday before the Executive Council’s weekly meeting.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in mask. Photo: AFP

“I admit that if we had set up a legal framework and a better emergency plan earlier, we could have been handling this case better,” Lam said.

“In order to contain a spread of the virus into the community, it is better to seal off that particular area for the compulsory testing to take place and preferably to be completed before the residents or the employees in those particular premises are allowed to go out into the community,” she said.  

The Kwai Shing West Estate outbreak showed that some public facilities were contaminated, Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable diseases branch at the Center for Health Protection, said Tuesday in a separate media briefing. About 2,300 samples had been collected in the estate so far, Chuang said.

David Hui Shu-cheong, chairman of the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, has called on the government to consider sealing off the entire Kwai Shing West Estate if further cases emerge in other blocks.

Tougher restrictions are on the way as a fourth Covid wave shows no signs of abating. On Tuesday, the goverment announced a ban on dine-in services at restaurants after 6 pm and ordered the closure of venues including gyms, massage parlors and beauty salons. The new measures will be implemented from Thursday for at least two weeks. The government will also assign more civil servants to work from home.

In the fortnight between November 24 to December 7, a total of 1,274 cases, or 91 cases per day on average, were recorded, Director of Health Constance Chan Hon-yee said in a media briefing on Tuesday. Local infections accounted for 92% of all cases during the period, Chan said.

About 85 local infections per day were recorded on average in the week ended Monday, compared with 37 cases in the previous week, Chan said.

The number of untraceable cases per day surged to 28 from seven for the period, she added, saying the growth in the number of local cases was worrying. As about 30% of local patients were asymptomatic, people should avoid gathering in the short term, Chan said.

The Centre for Health Protection reported a total of 100 cases, including five imported and 95 local infections, on Monday. Of the local patients, 13 were linked to a “dance club cluster,” which has increased to 660 patients as of Monday.

A swab sample is collected at a makeshift Covid testing site at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Hong Kong on September 1, 2020. Photo: AFP/Pool/ Anthony Kwan

Two more patients were added to a “construction site cluster” in Lohas Park, which has grown to 52 patients. Two additional patients were identified in the cluster at the Fong Shu Chuen Day Activity Centre and Hostel in Shau Kei Wan. The cluster has grown to 60 patients with almost all residents being infected.

In the Yata Department Store in Shatin, four salespeople were infected while seven others tested positive preliminarily. Health officials are investigating when the people were infected with the coronavirus in the common room.

In two halls at AsiaWorld-Expo, which is a designated virus testing center for incoming travelers, nine medical staff were identified as infected, bringing the total number of people in the cluster to a dozen. Three employees of the Centre for Health Protection also tested positive.

Kwai Shing West Estate could be sealed off if more patients are identified there. Photo: Google Maps

The health of some of the new patients has been deteriorating faster than people admitted to hospital during previous waves of infections, Kenny Chan, a doctor from the Hospital Authority’s coordinating committee in intensive care unit (ICU), said in an interview with RTHK.

Patients were being taken into ICUs within seven to 10 days after hospitalization in the past, but now many require intensive care within a couple of days, Chan said. A quarter of those in intensive care at the moment are under 50 years old, while some patients identified this week were only around 40 years old, he added.

Ho Pak-leung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection, said the current wave of coronavirus infections in Hong Kong has yet to reach its peak. He said the situation would get out of control if people did not cut down on social activities.

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