Coronavirus: Hong Kong health authorities make plans for fifth wave as city confirms 14 more Omicron cases

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  • Senior health officials warned there is a high risk of the variant making its way into the local community and begged citizens to get booster shots of the vaccine
  • Hospitals in Lantau and Kwai Chung have beds available for positive cases, and the city may consider using AsiaWorld-Expo if needed
SCMP |
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Authorities say they won’t rule out use of the community treatment facilities at AsiaWorld-Expo on Lantau Island if a fifth wave of Covid hits the city. Photo: SCMP/ Dickson Lee

Hong Kong has confirmed 14 new cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus, including 10 identified on Saturday – the most in a single day yet – as health authorities discuss plans for potential worst-case scenarios.

With the more transmissive variant spreading rapidly around the globe, senior health officials on Monday warned there was a high risk of the mutated strain making its way into the local community.

“Globally, the outbreak of Omicron and transmission speed is very fast … the risk to Hong Kong is also high,” Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said after visiting two public hospital facilities that handle coronavirus patients.

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Among the 14 new Omicron cases, five arrived in Hong Kong from Kazakhstan via South Korea, while the remaining cases came from a wide range of countries including Germany, Ireland, Ghana, Australia, India and Spain.

The new additions, four of which were identified on Friday, took the city’s growing Omicron tally to 58 cases.

Separately, the city recorded nine Covid-19 infections on Monday, all imported. The city’s tally of confirmed infections now stands 12,598, with 213 related deaths.

Chan said health authorities had met before Christmas to draw up contingency plans that would go into effect in the event of a new wave, saying they didn’t want to wait until community spread started to respond.

Hospital Authority chairman Henry Fan Hung-ling, who joined Chan in speaking to reporters, said the city would have enough public beds ready should a fifth wave emerge.

There are currently 900 negative-pressure beds – designed to handle patients with infectious diseases – available at the North Lantau Hospital Hong Kong Infection Control Centre and Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung.

But those can be supplemented on short notice, according to Fan.

Isolation beds at North Lantau Hospital Hong Kong Infection Control Centre. Photo: SCMP/ Sam Tsang

“If an outbreak continues, our next step will be resuming the use of the AsiaWorld-Expo community treatment facility, where there will be an extra 500 beds available for use,” he said.

“We now hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” he said.

At the moment, there are about 150 Covid-19 patients under the care of the city’s public hospitals system, including some 50 who have been discharged but are completing 14 days of isolation before returning to the community.

Hong Kong’s tough quarantine rules are unsustainable, experts warn

Earlier on Monday, respiratory medicine expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu said Hong Kong needed to begin limiting the number of flight passengers from high-risk countries and prevent them from coming into contact with airport staff to avoid a community outbreak of Covid-19.

A Cathay Pacific aircrew member recently tested positive for the coronavirus after returning from the United States.

Leung said the city’s airport was the major source for imported cases, noting that Hong Kong still allowed non-residents from high-risk destinations to transfer through the airport, posing a threat to the city’s virus control efforts.

The airport is considered the centre for the spread of the virus in Hong Kong, since passengers from high-risk countries can still transfer to other flights to different destinations. Photo: SCMP/K. Y. Cheng

“This increases the risk of cross-infections between transferring passengers from high-risks places and all the other passengers,” he told a local radio programme.

He said testing was crucial to preventing the virus from entering the community, as the highly transmissive Omicron variant, which is often asymptomatic, could cause reinfection and infect those who were fully vaccinated.

Airport staff, he suggested, should be tested every day.

Omicron spreads faster and weakens vaccine immunity

Speaking on the same radio programme, Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen appealed to holdouts in the city to get vaccinated, while urging those who had already received two shots to get a booster.

Earlier in December, a survey showed that nearly half of those who were still unvaccinated did not intend to get jabbed.

Bookings for a third jab will open to all age-eligible residents, regardless of risk category, at 8am on January 1.

He also urged residents aged 12 to 17 who had received their first dose of the BioNTech vaccine at least three months ago to receive a second dose, in line with the most recent guidance.

“Vaccination can help reduce the transmission speed and chances of community outbreak, and protect people from the risk of severe symptoms or death,” he said.

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