Three people on the same floor in a quarantine hotel in Hong Kong were infected with the highly contagious South African coronavirus variant, and the strain could have spread to the community, medical experts said.
A 29-year-old Indian engineer, who arrived in Hong Kong from Dubai on March 19, had tested negative while staying in a room on the 16th floor of the Ramada Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui during his 21-day quarantine period, according to the Center for Health Protection.
After he finished quarantine on April 9, he stayed with his girlfriend in an apartment at the Parkes Building in Jordan and visited many places in the city, including two banks and the Harbour City mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, a seafood restaurant in Cheung Chau and a supermarket at 45-53 Austin Road.
The man had planned to return to Dubai in mid-April, so he took a virus test which came back positive on April 16. Genome sequencing showed his coronavirus carried both the N501Y and E484K mutations. The N501Y variant can make the virus 70% more contagious, or easy to spread, while the E484K version can help the virus dodge a person’s immune system and may reduce a vaccines’ protection rate.
The man’s girlfriend, 31, was found to be infected on April 18. She could have been newly infected as she had a higher CT value, or a lower amount of the virus, than her boyfriend. The couple did not show any symptoms of illness.
On Tuesday, two people who had stayed in two other rooms on the same floor of the Ramada Hotel were found to be infected with the South African variant. Citing CCTV footage, the Ramada Hotel said the two people and the Indian man had not left their rooms during their quarantine periods.
Chuang Shuk-kwan, the head of the communicable diseases branch at the Center for Health Protection, said it was more likely that the Indian man was infected at the Ramada Hotel, than in Dubai. She said the door hooks used by hotel staff to hang meal boxes for quarantined guests could have spread the virus.
The government has urged all quarantine hotels not to use door hooks but chairs to hold the meal boxes.
However, medical experts on Wednesday raised doubts over a presumption that the coronavirus had been spread via door hooks as tests found no virus on the hooks.
“Airborne transmission is more likely. For these hotels, many of them have a very long corridor, some of them may not be well-ventilated,” said Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases. “When individuals open the doors, especially when they are not wearing the masks, there’s a risk that contaminated air may get into the corridor.
“If another person from another room opens the door, the air may go into the room. This may be a reason for cross-transmission.”
Leung urged the government to closely monitor the coronavirus situation and put on hold its plan to further relax social distancing rules if there is a rebound in infections.
Ho Pak-leung, the head of the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Infection, said the fact that the infected couple had walked freely in the city showed the loopholes in Hong Kong’s anti-epidemic measures. Ho said as the virus could have been spread to the community, it was important to find all those who came in contact with the couple and cut off the virus transmission chain as early as possible.
He said whether the Indian man was infected at the hotel or in Dubai would be revealed after more genome sequencing was done to the samples of all the recently infected people.
An Indonesian domestic worker, who arrived in Hong Kong on March 20, had stayed at the Ramada Hotel in quarantine until April 9. She then moved to her employer’s home in Yau Tong. She tested positive for the coronavirus on April 18.
Health officials are investigating whether the helper was infected at the hotel or elsewhere. She had visited the Lei Yue Mun market and the Lam Tin shopping mall.
Also, two returnees from the mainland had tested positive for Covid-19, but health officials said there was no evidence so far to suggest they had been infected there.
They returned to Hong Kong separately via Shenzhen Bay on April 6. One of the two, a 46-year-old woman who had been to Dongguan, was exempted from quarantine as she had come back to Hong Kong through the government’s Return2HK scheme. She worked as a housekeeper at a Tsuen Wan hotel from April 10 to 19.
A 56-year-old woman, who had been to Fujian, tested positive on the 12th day of her return to Hong Kong.
On Wednesday, only one imported case was recorded. A 31-year-old woman coming from the Philippines, who was staying at the Silka Seaview Hotel in Yau Ma Tei for quarantine, tested positive with the N501Y variant. She has remained asymptomatic. Five other people tested positive preliminarily.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday that the government had no plan to increase the mandatory quarantine period for incoming travelers from 21 days to 28 days as such a move would hurt Hong Kong’s business environment and economy. She said the best way to control the epidemic was to have more people vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the Singapore government announced it would reduce the mandatory quarantine period for people arriving from Hong Kong by a week from Friday.
“As the situation in Hong Kong has improved, we will reduce the home quarantine period from 14 days to seven days, which can be served at the place of residence if suitable,” according to a statement from the Singapore government.
At present, people coming from Singapore, Australia and New Zealand to Hong Kong are required to be isolated for 14 days. The Hong Kong government said on April 12 that it was considering allowing vaccinated people from the three countries to be quarantined for seven days only.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong banned flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines for two weeks.