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Hong Kong residents queue for Covid-19 tests early Tuesday morning at Saint Teresa's Hospital in Mong Kok. Photo: SCMP/ Winson Wong
As the third wave of Covid-19 hits Hong Kong, long queues outside the city's hospital are becoming an increasingly common site, as people rush to be tested while cases emerge from housing estates, elderly care centres and restaurants.
However, local health authorities say there is no need to be tested in the absence of symptoms or close contact with someone confirmed to be infected. In fact, heading to the hospital without meeting one of those two criteria is likely to strain the city's overwhelmed health care system.
With that in mind, here is a short checklist you can go through before making the decision to get tested, as well as avenues for accessing testing services if you feel you need one.
A “close contact” is anyone who has talked to an infected person for at least 15 minutes without wearing masks, from two days before the onset of the patient’s symptoms until the time they have been isolated.
Family members who live in the same household are counted as close contacts as well, according to the Centre for Health Protection, and are required to quarantine.
If an infected person is known to have taken public transport such as planes, buses or trains, anyone sitting two rows in front of or behind the confirmed case would be classified as a close contact.
A child sits among Hong Kong residents queuing for Covid-19 testing in the city’s Mong Kok area. Photo: SCMP/ Winson Wong
What if I’m not certain I qualify as a close contact?
It is understandable some people will want to be tested simply because they are not positive about whether they have been the close contact of a confirmed case. Here are a few hypothetical scenarios you could consider, with advice from infectious disease specialist Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan:
"I put on a mask and went grocery shopping at a wet market near my home. I stayed at a stall for one or two minutes and bought some vegetables. Later, the stall owner was identified as a confirmed case."
The risk is relatively low. As long as you did not stay at the stall for long, sanitised your hands thoroughly, and did not touch your face after unpacking the plastic bags and getting your change, you should be relatively safe.
In the office
"I wear a mask all the time, and only take it off at intervals when there’s no one around. I spend most of the day in the office and eat lunch in the pantry. Recently, a colleague sitting close to me got infected."
It might be better to go for a test if you have been staying in the same indoor area with an infected person, especially if you had not put on a mask tightly during the period, as some of the droplets containing the virus could remain in the air for three or four hours if the person sneezed or coughed.
In public or private housing estates
"Recently, a neighbour living 10 floors above me became a confirmed case. I do not know him personally and am not sure if I have seen him before."
I would suggest that those who live on the same floor with the confirmed patient do a test, as you may share some of the public facilities with the person. But for others, your risk is low if you maintain hygiene and seldom leave home.
"I ate at a restaurant recently and later saw a confirmed case had visited there."
Try to get more information from the restaurant or health authorities as to which day the confirmed case paid a visit, and where exactly that person sat. If it’s the same period of time and you were sitting close, then you may consider doing a test.
If you are still unsure what to do but feel healthy and do not have symptoms, you may not need to rush in for testing, as the capacity at both public and private sector facilities is quite full.
What are the available options if I need to get tested?
Both public and private clinics and hospitals offer tests, but tests carried out in the public sector will not carry a health certificate declaring you free of Covid-19.
Members of the public can go to any of the 64 general clinics and 17 emergency departments administered by the Hospital Authority for testing if they have a fever, respiratory symptoms or chest infection. After a clinical assessment, they will determine if there is a need to collect deep throat saliva samples either at home or in hospital.
If the test result is negative, the authority will inform the patient via text message, while the Centre for Health Protection will contact the patient regarding hospital admission for isolation and follow-up treatment if the test result is positive.
The public can also reach out to eight private hospitals and seven laboratories for tests if necessary, with costs ranging from a few hundred dollars to HK$2,000, and a waiting period of two hours to two days for results.