Daily coronavirus infections in Hong Kong rose for a second day in a row to 24 on Wednesday, as medical experts were split over whether the government should relax some social-distancing measures from Friday as planned.
All of the latest infections were locally transmitted, pushing the city’s tally to 4,734. An 81-year-old male Covid-19 patient was the latest fatality, taking the number of deaths to 79.
The city registered just nine new infections on Monday, the lowest since July 3. But the daily count reached 19 on Tuesday – including 16 locally transmitted cases – and climbed further on Wednesday.
Ten of the new cases were untraced, sustaining the high percentage of local infections with unknown sources recently.
“The daily numbers go up and down,” said Dr Chuang Chuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch at the Centre for Health Protection. “From what we have seen in the past few weeks, sometimes the figures are higher, and sometimes the numbers are lower. We’re seeing a downward trend, even though it’s still not at a very low level yet.”
Unless there were “drastic changes” to the virus situation, the government would relax some social-distancing rules from Friday, health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said on Tuesday.
Restaurants will be permitted to offer a dine-in service until 9pm, three hours longer than the current cut-off point, while cinemas, beauty parlours and some sports venues can reopen. People will no longer be required to wear masks while exercising outdoors or when in country parks.
But other measures, such as the closure of more than 10 types of businesses such as bars and gyms, as well as the ban on public gatherings of more than two people, will be extended.
Asked whether the government should go ahead with easing social-distancing rules, Chuang admitted the situation was not yet under control and called on residents to continue to take precautionary measures.
“The proportion of cases of unknown source has been 30 to 40 per cent … [which] has been disproportionate for a while, so this means there is silent transmission in the community, but due to practical reasons for the community we can’t restrict the social-distancing measures forever,” she said.
Among the latest cases were six residents and a carer at the Hong Chi Lei Muk Shue Hostel in Kwai Chung, bringing the total number of infections at the care home for the mentally disabled to 10.
The city also recorded another 10 preliminary positive cases.
Infectious diseases specialist Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan said the social-distancing measures should not be relaxed yet as the number of daily infections had been rising.
Easing the rules before the voluntary universal mass testing scheme started next Tuesday would send mixed signals to the public, he said. With 30 to 40 per cent of daily infections from unknown sources, mass testing would give the administration a more accurate picture of the epidemic, he said.
“Why not wait for the results of the citywide mass testing first?” he said. “And then, fine-tune our social-distancing measures after we have gathered all the information and data from the mass screening.”
Dr Leung Chi-chiu, a respiratory medicine expert, also said it was too early to relax the measures as the number of newly reported cases was not considered low. “And we’re also seeing different clusters emerge in the community which means there are still silent carriers,” he said.
He feared that allowing residents to take off their masks while exercising outdoors would increase the risk of transmitting the virus.
But Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a Chinese University respiratory medicine expert who advises the government on its pandemic response, said that waiting for the number of new cases to drop to zero before easing preventive measures would probably take a long time.
“Solely from an infection control perspective, of course it’s better to wait a bit longer [to relax the measures], but the government needs to balance the opinions of different industries, the economy and the needs of the public,” he told a radio programme.
Hui suggested restaurants send different staff to serve food and collect used tableware to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 via droplets on contaminated dishes. He also recommended maintaining good ventilation by installing exhaust fans and air purifiers if possible.