Staff of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department give warnings to domestic workers about social distancing rules. Photo: HK Govt

All 370,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong have been ordered to get mandatory Covid-19 tests by May 9 after two were infected with a mutated coronavirus in a week.

Domestic workers who have had a second dose of Covid vaccine for at least 14 days could be exempted from the mandatory tests, Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said in a media briefing on Friday.

Those who had been tested due to contact with a newly-infected helper in Tung Chung could also be exempted, Chan said.

Law Chi-kwong, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, said the government was considering requiring all domestic workers to get regular tests.

The government would amend the law to require foreign domestic workers to get vaccinated before they could renew their working visas in Hong Kong, Law said. Those who didn’t want to receive the Covid vaccine could choose to work in other places, he said.

On average, about 500 domestic workers apply to renew their working visas per day.

Law said this weekend health officials and law enforcement officers would go to the areas where domestic workers usually gather and remind them to follow social distancing rules.

When asked by the media why the maids’ employers were not required to have virus tests, Law said domestic workers faced a higher risk of infection as they usually had gatherings with friends on rest days.

It was the first time a Hong Kong official said domestic workers faced a higher risk of virus transmission than their employers.

According to a survey by the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions last June, 80% of domestic workers in Hong Kong said they were discriminated against during the pandemic. They said it was unfair that they were accused of going out on rest days while their employers had gatherings frequently.

Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, a specialist in infectious disease, said the government should order all domestic workers to be tested as Covid variants were highly infectious. Tsang said the virus would be spread more easily as people would have more gatherings near Mother’s Day on May 9.

In Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers mainly come from the Philippines and Indonesia.

Filipino maids gather during a weekend in pre-Covid times on a street in Central, Hong Kong. Photo: AFP/Liang Xiashun/Imaginechina

Virus mutations

On Thursday evening, two Covid patients with mutated coronavirus were identified in a residential building in Tung Chung on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island.

One was a 39-year-old Filipino domestic worker who developed a cough on April 23 and sought medical treatment on Monday. She tested positive on Thursday and she carried a highly contagious virus with N501Y and E484K mutations, which could have come from South Africa or Brazil.

As she had not traveled overseas during her two-year stay in Hong Kong, her case was categorized as a local one with no known source. She was living with her employers and a 10-month-old baby girl in an apartment at Tower 11, Carmel Cove, Caribbean Coast, in Tung Chung.

Tower 11, Carmel Cove, Caribbean Coast, in Tung Chung. Photo: Google Maps

The 10-month-old baby was also infected, but her parents tested negative. The baby’s mother was a teacher at Ling Liang Church Sau Tak Primary School and visited the school on Wednesday.

The baby’s father worked as a psychologist at Omni Mind Gym Psychological Services in Mong Kok.

During her incubation period, the domestic worker had been to the Fu Tung Market and a Fusion supermarket at Caribbean Square and spent her rest days with two close friends at the Man Tung Road Park. She also took part in a choir at the Saint Thomas the Apostle Church in Tsing Yi on April 11 and 18.

A dozen of the helper’s church members and two of her close friends, as well as her employers and some of their relatives, are required to be isolated for 21 days. About 950 people from 400 households of Tower 11 at Caribbean Coast have also been put under a 21-day quarantine. They tested negative preliminarily on Friday.

“This is the first local infection of a coronavirus variant via an unknown source in the Hong Kong community,” Ronald Lam, the controller of the Centre for Health Protection, said Friday. “We think the situation is critical. We are very concerned and must take it seriously.”

It was likely that the newly-infected domestic worker was infected through a transmission chain linked to a 29-year-old Indian engineer, who arrived in Hong Kong from Dubai on March 19 but tested positive after his 21-day quarantine period, Lam said.

Fifth wave of epidemic

Mandatory testing notices have been issued for people who have visited a shopping mall, a park and a wet market that the infected domestic worker visited. Those who have visited those places are required to be tested by Saturday.

The government set up a mobile specimen collection station at Fu Tung Estate in Tung Chung on Friday for people subject to compulsory testing, while the operating hours of the station at Tung Chung North Park were also adjusted.

As the patients in the latest cases and an earlier one involving the mutant strain are domestic helpers, the Centre for Health Protection advised employers to remind their helpers to avoid gatherings, food sharing and other social activities.

Employers are urged to pay attention to their domestic workers’ health and seek medical attention immediately if symptoms develop.

Last Friday, a domestic helper who arrived from the Philippines on March 27 was found to be infected with the N501Y variant. As she moved into her employers’ home at Kennedy Terrace at 8 Kennedy Road on April 17, her employer’s family and all 60 residents of the building were sent to quarantine.

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers and police inspect a restaurant and bar in Lan Kwai Fong, a popular drinking area in Hong Kong, on April 29, 2021. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

David Hui Shu-cheong, chairman of the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the two cases at Kennedy Terrace and Caribbean Coast should be unrelated as the variants were different.

Hui also said there was no evidence that the mutated virus had been spread in the domestic worker community as the newly infected helper did not go to a lot of places in Hong Kong.

He added that the mutated coronavirus was 50% more infectious than the original one and could cause the fifth wave of the epidemic in Hong Kong if more local cases were identified in the coming two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government announced that from Saturday, Nepal would be added to a list of extremely high-risk countries, with flights banned for at least two weeks. A ban on flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines, which was introduced on April 14, will also be extended.

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