Authorities in Hong Kong evacuated several families from an apartment block in the city's Tsing Yi district on Tuesday, as the government warned people to stay home amid fears of a full-blown community outbreak of coronavirus.
As the death toll in the coronavirus epidemic that first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan passed 1,000, Hong Kong health authorities are scrambling to contain coronavirus infections, which have mostly been confirmed among people who recently traveled to the worst-hit areas.
But there are concerns that the virus may now be spreading within the local community, and is no longer confined to recent arrivals from mainland China.
Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection (CHP) said in the early hours of Tuesday that it was evacuating some households from a block of flats in Tsing Yi district after two people were diagnosed with the new coronavirus there.
The two new cases were recorded in Hong Mei House in Tsing Yi's Cheung Hong housing estate.
The first, the 12th case of the virus in Hong Kong, involved a resident of the building, and a new case identified on Monday involved a woman who lives in a flat 10 floors below, raising concerns that the virus may have been transmitted via the building itself.
Local media showed police and health officials in protective gear outside the building.
CHP chief Wong Ka-hing said the evacuation was a precautionary measure, and that there was no confirmation that the virus had spread within the building.
Call to stay home
Chief executive Carrie Lam called on the city's seven million residents to stay home.
"We are making an appeal to the people of Hong Kong to stay at home as much as possible," Lam told reporters. "This means that they should avoid some social interactions and participation in social activities and family reunions and friends meeting and so on."
She also reiterated the government's warning that anyone breaking quarantine could be prosecuted.
"If the individuals ... are willing to shoulder the criminal liabilities of not complying, then we will have to take law enforcement action," Lam told journalists.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said coronavirus transmission could potentially take place through contact, droplets from coughs and sneezes, or through the air.
"We still can't rule out whether these cases were infected by direct or indirect contact, or droplets, or airborne infections," Yuen said. "They may be tested again on Friday. If [the other residents] are OK, they can actually go home on Valentine's Day."
The authorities would wait to see if anyone else became diagnosed, he said.
While the Hong Kong authorities began compulsory 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving from mainland China, not all visitors are being supervised, and some are waiting out the period in hotels, with no electronic tracking in place.
Figures released by Hong Kong's immigration authorities showed a 40 percent spike in the number of inbound visitors from mainland China on Friday, the day before the quarantine measures took effect.
More than 230,000 people entered the city in the three days running up to the new restrictions, the government said, sparking concerns that this group is the one most likely to spread the coronavirus within Hong Kong.
A woman who gave only a nickname Miss K said she knew of a Hong Kong resident who had come back from Shanghai with a cough and diarrhea, but had refused to seek medical treatment.
"We told the authorities, but she just kept insisting that there was nothing wrong with her," the woman said. "What can we do? The people on the same floor as her are very worried, but when they called the health department, they said there was nothing they could do."
A request for comment to the CHP went unanswered at the time of broadcast.
Meanwhile, chief executive Lam defended her decision not to completely close Hong Kong's border with mainland China.
"Total border closure would block people and the freight that we currently need," she said. "We are still having the effect of minimizing the flow of people across the border."
Reported by Tseng Yat-yiu and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.