Hong Kong has registered a triple-digit rise of Covid-19 cases for the eighth day running to push its total above 3,000, as the government revealed new strategies to help save hospitals from coronavirus overload and the city’s toughest social-distancing measures to date took effect.
More health and care settings were caught up in the escalating crisis on Wednesday when Hong Kong confirmed another 118 mostly local infections, while tempers frayed over the new restaurant ban that forced many to eat their lunch on the streets.
Faced with bed shortages and spiralling waiting times, public hospitals laid out plans to launch a telephone hotline and a new triage system to improve the handling of Covid-19 patients, as officials aimed to provide hundreds of extra isolation beds at AsiaWorld-Expo at the weekend.
The new social-distancing restrictions that kicked in on Wednesday include banning both public gatherings of more than two people and dining in at restaurants, while wearing a mask is now mandatory in all public places.
Threatened with a backlash from some workers who resorted to eating in the heat in outdoor areas such as bus stations, the government announced on Wednesday that the Home Affairs Department would open 19 community centres across Hong Kong between 11am and 3pm from Thursday, where people can sit down for lunch.
“In any situation, try to stay apart, and refrain from talking to each other so you can finish your meals sooner and put your mask back on,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch.
Among the fresh Covid-19 cases confirmed at a press briefing on Wednesday, 113 were locally transmitted, including 46 of unknown origin. About 80 other people have tested preliminary positive. The city’s confirmed tally of cases now stands at 3,002, with 24 related deaths.
A 76-year-old woman was the latest fatality, becoming on Wednesday morning the fifth person to die in the city since Monday after catching the coronavirus. She was among a cluster of seven patients from a medical ward at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei.
The elderly patient was admitted to that ward on June 30 after suffering from shortness of breath caused by heart failure. She was later sent to an isolation bed after another patient from the original ward was confirmed as infected.
About a third of the more than 1,600 cases emerging during the city’s third wave of Covid-19 have unknown sources of infection. Among those infected are hospital patients, elderly care home residents, restaurant patrons and taxi drivers.
Four elderly care homes recorded new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, with a caretaker becoming the very first Covid-19 case linked to Jockey Club Tuen Mun Home for the Aged Blind.
Two nurses at Po Chung Chuen Ying Home for the Elderly are also among the newly confirmed patients. A resident at King Fuk Limited tested preliminary positive, which if confirmed would be the first case relating to that nursing home.
The contagion also spread to another two carers and four residents of Cornwall Elderly’s Home (Golden Branch) in Tuen Mun, taking the infected tally there to 33.
Four of the city’s new infections are linked to an emerging cluster surrounding the building firm Kin Shing (Leung’s) General Contractors, which now has 19 cases to its name.
Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung has also become embroiled in the Covid-19 crisis for the first time, with the Hospital Authority revealing four members of staff there had tested preliminary positive for the virus – two members of support staff sharing a hostel room, a colleague on the same ward and another employee in the oncology department.
Acknowledging the long wait for treatment facing some confirmed Covid-19 patients, Dr Sara Ho Yuen-ha, a chief manager from the Hospital Authority, said a hotline would launch on Thursday offering support for those infected.
A short-term triage programme involving isolation wards at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital – for younger patients who are in a more stable condition and ready for transfer to community isolation centres at Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village – would be rolled out to free up capacity.
Ho also confirmed the new treatment facility at AsiaWorld-Expo, which is designed to relieve the pressure on isolation beds in hospitals, would provide an extra 500 beds from Saturday at the earliest.
On the continuing spread of cases in care homes, Dr Lam Ching-choi, chairman of the Elderly Commission, said there was no easy way to stop the coronavirus. “It is a very critical time for elderly care homes now,” Lam said.
While the government had already banned visits, Lam said it would be a challenge to avoid contagion via workers living in the community.
To identify asymptomatic carriers earlier, Lam said the government could consider conducting weekly testing on workers and residents at private care homes which had fewer resources and more crowded environments, where infection was more likely to spread.
Dr Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said infections among hospital staff showed the city was not fast enough in cutting transmission chains.
“While we have more sources of infection, we are also slow in identifying cases, contacting tracing and isolating patients,” Leung said. “Many [hospital] staff might not even know they have been exposed to the infection.”
He said the health authorities would need to triage patients based on the severity of their condition and send them to facilities matching their treatment requirements, so hospital beds could be saved for those in greatest needs and patients could be isolated more quickly.
Also on Wednesday, the government announced wage subsidies under its HK$81 billion coronavirus relief scheme had been distributed to another 11,600 employers. The latest round of support for businesses covered the wages of 200,000 workers at a cost of HK$4.7 billion to the public purse.
Among the new beneficiaries was telecommunications company HKT Services, which received HK$268 million for 11,465 employees. PCCW, another telecommunications firm, had been given HK$81 million for 3,324 staff.
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