Hong Kong’s fifth wave of coronavirus could see thousands of deaths, a new study said.
Slammed by the city's fifth wave of COVID-19, Hong Kong is facing its worst health period since the pandemic began two years ago. It has forced the city’s government to implement strict measures, including compulsory tests for all Hong Kong residents.
February has seen thousands of new cases, mostly from the omicron variant. A new daily high of 10,010 infections was recorded Friday.
A study by the University of Hong Kong considered the potential outcomes from the current wave of coronavirus cases. One of the worst scenarios outlined that if the hospitals were to be overburdened, Hong Kong could see 7,000 COVID-19-related deaths by the end of June.
“The infection fatality risk may increase by 50% when the health care system becomes overburdened, in which case the cumulative number of deaths could further increase to 4,231 – 6,993,” the study said.
But it also said deaths could be half that number, about 3,200 by mid-May, if health measures remained.
Hong Kong had adopted a “zero-COVID” strategy, aligned with Beijing's effort to control the pandemic across China. It had some success, with authorities quickly clamping down on rare outbreaks by contact tracing, social restrictions, mass testing and quarantine.
Fan Hung-ling, chairman of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, told the Chinese state's Global Times that the strategy was “our country’s basic policy” and “won’t change.”
Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the city’s authorities to get the fifth wave under control. Xi is due to visit Hong Kong July 1, marking the 25th anniversary of the city's return to China from Britain.
Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam unveiled new measures for the city, including a requirement that residents have proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter various premises.
On Wednesday, Lam also announced compulsory testing for all residents by March, with a goal of boosting the city’s vaccination rate to 90%.
Dr. David Owens, an honorary assistant clinical professor at Hong Kong University, had hoped for a different plan of action.
“I would have preferred we would have shifted all of our energies that would effectively [be focused on] things that would save lives," Owens told VOA. "That would be mitigation, to roll out vaccinations to the elderly and vulnerable. I have also argued we should move to rapid testing so we can break the transmission chains quickly."
Need for home isolation
Dr. Karen Grepin, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health, responded to the mass strategy campaign.
“It is likely it will happen at a time very close to the peak of the outbreak and thus it will likely identify literally hundreds of thousands of cases, including likely many who are no longer infectious. It is unlikely that we will be able to isolate even a fraction of these cases, so unless it is coupled with a comprehensive home isolation strategy, it will have little impact on transmission,” Grepin told VOA.
According to data from the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, public hospitals are averaging an occupancy rate of 89%.
One health worker at Hong Kong’s United Christian Hospital, who chose to remain anonymous, admitted she was “afraid” of the pending testing program.
“Patients were crying," she said. "A male patient said he had not eaten for 12 hours. And another patient said he wanted to commit suicide. And I started to cry. I cannot offer any more for them.
“I am so afraid of the universal testing program. We don’t have enough manpower for that. The government is so keen on a zero-COVID strategy. To me, it is a zero-medical staff strategy. The morale is worsened every day in the frontline.”
She described her job’s current conditions as like “working in a market.”
“It was so difficult to pass through the waiting hall," she said. "We have to shout out to search the patients.”
Patients in beds outdoors
Last week, Hong Kong’s Caritas Hospital saw dozens of patients lying in hospital beds outside in cold weather, waiting to be admitted. But occupancy is was at 102%, the Hospital Authority said.
A nurse working at the hospital, who also chose to remain anonymous, said elderly patients “have nowhere to turn.”
“Patients are not severely sick from my ward, but [have a] lack of self-care ability. The virus is widely breaking out in elderly care homes and homes for disabilities. They cannot do self-isolation, as they are from the same care center. The staff [are] probably infected. Therefore, the patients literally have nowhere to go even if they turn negative,” she told VOA.
Hong Kong residents have also spoken to VOA about pandemic fatigue, venting their frustrations at the government’s new health measures.
And some expatriates are also looking to leave the city altogether. A Facebook group aimed at helping expatriates leave Hong Kong has already gained over 3,000 members, only days after being created.
Singapore for some
British citizen Niall Trimble, a job recruitment director at Ethos BeathChapman, an executive recruitment firm in Hong Kong, has decided to move elsewhere in Asia.
“I would say the reason for leaving is the lack of flexibility compared to other places on the COVID situation," he told VOA. "As a recruiter across technology and financial services I am already seeing a huge influx of candidates looking to move to Singapore and also clients looking to move operations to Singapore.”
Hong Kong’s economy fell into a two-year recession in 2019 and 2020. But last year the city saw growth of 6.4% as coronavirus cases remained low.
But Hong Kong has now recorded at least 84,000 cases, with 2022 alone seeing more infections than the last two years combined.
Hong Kong’s finance chief unveiled a budget of over $20 billion to cope with the outbreak, which will include an electronic spending voucher for each resident.
Hong Kong authorities are set to loosen the strategy on rapid testing and allow home isolation for positive cases, the South China Morning Post reported Friday.