Health officials in Hong Kong have apologised for putting a patient with the new coronavirus in the wrong ward, raising fears for the safety of others.
The Hospital Authority on Saturday revealed a 62-year-old infected woman from Wuhan was kept in a ward at Tuen Mun Hospital for up to four hours without negative room pressure, which is designed to prevent germs or any body fluid from spreading.
Later in the day, doctors at the hospital said they had identified 12 people who needed to be placed in quarantine as a result, following a visit by experts from the Department of Health and Hospital Authority’s head office.
Eleven of them, made up of four men and seven women, aged between 18 and 88 years old, were patients while one was a security guard, said Dr Que Tak-lun, the hospital’s infection control officer.
Dr Chung Kin-lai, director of quality and safety at the Hospital Authority, confirmed the error could have put patients, doctors and other staff in the hospital at risk.
“We want to apologise for this incident and the imperfect handling,” Chung said.
The woman was the third out of a total of five confirmed Hong Kong cases of the novel coronavirus, which emerged from the central Chinese city of Wuhan but has since spread across the country and other parts of the world, killing at least 41.
All five infected patients, who have been sent to Princess Margaret Hospital, were in stable condition, although one deteriorated and had to be put on oxygen later in the day.
There were 65 new suspected cases reported in Hong Kong between Friday and Saturday at noon.
Some 108 people are still isolated in hospitals with suspect symptoms of the coronavirus.
Tuen Mun Hospital’s Accident & Emergency (A&E) department received two suspected cases of the Wuhan virus on Thursday night.
It is understood that one of the patients, who was eventually found not to have the virus, was held in a ward with negative room pressure – but the woman later confirmed as infected was placed in a room designed only for the treatment of wounds.
Chung said: “The two rooms with negative pressure were in use, so the patient [confirmed with virus] was placed in a third room pending treatment for three to four hours.
“But we subsequently found that it is a room without negative room pressure, and this could affect medics and other patients.”
The revelation has taken staff at the hospital by surprise. “Doctors carried on treating the patients in that same room. We were not briefed and we only heard about it from the news,” said a medical source who declined to be named.
Chung said the impact of the mistake was still being investigated. He said the room involved was not close to the main lobby, where footfall is high.
“We need to undertake further risk assessments,” he said, adding the room had already been cleaned.
The incident also highlighted the increasing pressure on the public health system, especially its preventive facilities.
A second medical source said there was only one standard isolation room in Tuen Mun Hospital Accident and Emergency department. Other rooms had recently been equipped with filtering machines under the contingency plan.
It was not immediately clear if the filtering machines, which draw out germs through negative pressure, were activated in the room in question.
Reporting the findings in the evening, deputy chief executive Dr Francis Mok Chun-keung, of Tuen Mun Hospital, said the patient and her two family members were placed in the room after she was suspected of having caught the virus.
The doctor on duty placed them in the trauma room because it was the biggest, so they could have some space to rest while waiting.
“But we later found out the room did not have a negative-pressure device,” Mok said.
He said the air inside the trauma room could most possibly escape through the door to the X-ray room outside, so they ended up tracking down the people standing there to identify the 12 individuals to be quarantined.
Chung, from the Hospital Authority, conceded there were capacity issues for facilities with negative room pressure.
As of Saturday, 40 per cent of rooms with negative room pressure were in use. The total number of isolation wards had increased from 290 to 325, but 60 of them were already in use.
“We are worried there will be more patients after the holiday and the pressure of the facilities will be higher,” Chung said.
As of Saturday, five medical staff from public hospitals suspected of being infected had been placed under medical surveillance. Of those, three came out negative for the new coronavirus and tests were ongoing for the other two.
Meanwhile, leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung warned the new virus could spread rapidly between families who had gathered for Lunar New Year and called for public holidays to be extended until the situation was more stable.
That would prevent students from mainland China bringing the virus into local schools or universities, Yuen said.
“The next few days could be the last window of opportunity to stop the infection from spreading by silently infected mainlanders that crossed the border into Hong Kong or Macau,” Yuen said in a message posted by his University of Hong Kong colleague, Ho Pak-leung.
“Hong Kong or Macau or other world cities could easily become another Wuhan or another 2003 Hong Kong.”
Warning of the need to stock up on masks, disinfectants and other materials, he called for authorities to promote the universal wearing of masks outside the home and the frequent use of alcohol hand sanitisers “before it is too late”.
At Lake Silver in Ma On Shan, where the Wuhan couple tested positive for coronavirus, cleaners were seen in a full set of protective gear, wiping door handles and other facilities.
A 34-year-old mother, surnamed Lau, who lived in the block with her eight-month-old son, said: “Once I heard Lake Silver was hit I was very anxious, since it is so close,” Lau said.
She said the family had cleaned the flat with 1-to-99 bleach, and also disinfected her husband’s luggage and shoes.
In Tuen Mun, at South Hillcrest, retiree Wong Chi, in his 70s, said he had told relatives not to visit him after learning that his residence had been hit with the virus.
“It’s best to avoid it,” he said.
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