Hong Kong 'At Risk' From Community Coronavirus Outbreak, Medical Experts Warn


2020-02-18
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Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Hong Kong Health Department's Communicable Disease Branch, speaks to reporters on Feb. 18, 2020.
Screen grab from video

Authorities in Hong Kong are stepping up coronavirus surveillance measures as experts warn the city is at high risk of infections spreading within the local community.

The city's government said testing for COVID-19 would expand to cover patients presenting with fever or respiratory symptoms in government-run hospital emergency rooms and primary care clinics.

"We believe that the aforesaid measure helps detect mild cases in the community and provide a better understanding of the epidemiological situation," a spokesman said.

As of Tuesday, Hong Kong had reported 61 confirmed cases of COVID-19, compared with 72,439 in mainland China, with just one death, compared with 1,870 deaths across the border.

The move was announced as researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's medical school warned that the city is at risk of seeing COVID-19 take hold in the community, rather than simply managing cases linked to travelers who arrived from mainland China in recent weeks.

An epidemiological analysis of the first 56 confirmed cases in Hong Kong show there was an average delay of 6.5 from the onset of symptoms to the person being isolated, meaning that they could have infected many others during that time.

In some cases, the patient wasn't isolated until two weeks after symptoms emerged, co-author Kwok Kin-on told journalists.

"The characteristics of this disease are pretty similar to the flu," Kwok said. "As everyone knows, we have also had the flu season for some time now, so it would have been hard to tell whether those cases were flu [or COVID-19]."

"What we have to do now is to reduce our contact with other people," he said. "If we can't get infected that way, then the numbers of infections will fall, and that will mean the epidemic doesn't spread as far as it might have done."

"As citizens, we should take the initiative [to avoid social contact]," he said.

Kwok also called on private doctors to refer patients for tests as soon as possible, to reduce the risk of community transmission.

Worse than SARS

David Hui, professor of respiratory medicine at CUHK, said COVID-19 is far more infectious than SARS, the virus that left around 800 dead in 2002-2003.

He said COVID-19 is also characterized by a high viral load in the early days of the disease, meaning that it is easily spread among close-knit groups.

The researchers said many people in Hong Kong are extremely anxious about the epidemic, with the majority of those they interviewed saying they think they are highly likely to catch the virus.

After months of political crisis and violent conflict between police and protesters, morale in the city is running low.

The researchers found that nearly 60 percent of the 1,000 respondents they interviewed said they don't trust government websites to relay accurate information about the epidemic, and that they rely instead on their family doctors for advice.

While a majority of respondents have stepped up personal hygiene practices, including wearing masks and cleaning hands, not as many were reducing social contact, the survey found.

Some 56 percent said they were avoiding public gatherings, while only 36 percent said they would avoid using public transportation.

Pro-democracy lawmakers on Tuesday hit out at Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang after he was shown in video footage partying with celebrities including Jackie Chan, Eric Tsang, and Alan Tam after a football match, without wearing a face mask.

Democratic Party legislator James To said Tang was a bad role model when it comes to preventing the virus from spreading in the community, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

Business owners go on strike

Morale was also at a low ebb among business owners, hundreds of whom staged a strike calling on their landlords to cut their rents to help them through hard times.

Tenants went on strike in 14 major shopping malls including Harbour City, New Town Plaza, and the International Financial Centre.

A striking tenant who gave only a nickname Kim said some stores are facing falls of nearly 90 percent in turnover compared with eight months ago.

He said rent cuts promised to some tenants by Sun Hung Kai had yet to materialize.

"The thing we are most dissatisfied about is that the government assistance came too late," Kim told RFA. "

He said some mainland-based businesses appeared to be getting far greater discounts than businesses founded in Hong Kong.

"Hang Lung Development is offering discounts of 50 percent or more for mainland tenants, and some shopping malls don't even collect rent at all, and yet the luckiest Hong Kong businesses are only getting 10 percent off their rent bills," Kim said.

Reported by Man Hoi-tsan and Tseng Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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