Local health officials expressed deep concern on Saturday as Hong Kong set yet another daily record with 133 new Covid-19 cases, while hospital beds inched closer to maximum capacity.
The government figures marked the fourth straight day the city had topped the previous day’s tally, and two more coronavirus patients were revealed to have died.
“We are seeing a very high number of cases daily and the trend is still increasing,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Centre for Health Protection. “We are very worried about whether this situation can be controlled actually.”
Among Saturday’s new cases, 126 were locally transmitted, including 55 whose source of infection remained unknown. More than 100 people also tested preliminarily positive and were awaiting confirmation.
The latest additions brought the city’s tally to 2,505, with 18 related deaths.
Chuang said authorities would need to observe the situation closely over the next one to two weeks to see if recently implemented social-distancing measures would begin to curb transmission.
Saturday’s fatalities involved two men, aged 60 and 84, the younger of whom was admitted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei on Friday due to heart disease, and confirmed infected with Covid-19 the same day.
The 84-year-old, who lived in Ping Shek Estate in Choi Hung, was first sent to United Christian Hospital on July 16, then transferred to Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan two days later for further care.
Clusters at the city’s care homes also continued to expand. At Cornwall Elderly’s Home in San Hui at Tuen Mun, where a staff member was confirmed infected on Friday, another resident was confirmed to have the virus, while six others living there and two workers tested initially positive.
About 20 of the facility’s 90 residents as well as up to six staff members would need to be quarantined, according to Chuang.
The Salvation Army Lung Hang Residence for Senior Citizens in Tai Wai, which previously had two workers and one resident confirmed infected, saw three more residents test positive for the virus. Forty-nine residents had already been sent to a holiday centre for the elderly for quarantine.
The Providence Garden for Rehab, a care home for mentally and physically disabled persons operated by the SKH Welfare Council, became the most recent care facility hit with Covid-19, as one of its residents was confirmed to have the virus on Saturday.
The care home stated on its website that the resident was part of a halfway house dormitory located on the seventh floor of the facility.
Chuang said the government was in the progress of identifying more locations suitable for use as quarantine facilities for care home residents, who typically require extra support.
“The government is worried about the surge of cases at elderly homes. We have been actively identifying [more] places that are suitable to be used as quarantine facilities. The relevant departments have been working hard on that,” she said.
Another worrying development emerged at University Hall, a campus residence at the University of Hong Kong. A student there was among the confirmed cases, while one of his roommates tested initially positive and another had developed symptoms.
Chuang said about 10 to 20 people living on the same floor with the infected student would need to be placed under quarantine.
Taxi drivers, another group identified as high-risk in recent weeks, also accounted for four more cases, while a possible cluster could also emerge from a July 12 boat trip that was attended by more than 40 people and has seen at least one infected so far.
More businesses and government units also revealed they had employees infected with the virus, including Standard Chartered Bank, HSBC, Pizza Hut, the Sheung Shui Slaughterhouse, and the city’s customs and highways departments.
Veteran fashion designer William Tang Tat-chi also confirmed he had tested initially positive for Covid-19. Tang visited RTHK and Metro Broadcast radio stations last week to host programmes, with RTHK saying they had already disinfected the areas he had visited.
From Monday, people with mild symptoms will be able to obtain specimen bottles for the virus test from one of 22 public general outpatient clinics, without the need to be seen by a doctor, according to the Hospital Authority.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, meanwhile, the city’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, admitted for the first time that she had sought help from Beijing in dealing with Hong Kong’s latest outbreak.
She said the central government had moved to help by enhancing the city’s testing capacity and retrofitting areas of AsiaWorld-Expo on Lantau Island to serve as a “mobile cabin hospital” upon her request.
Lam also said Hong Kong had room for further tightening of social-distancing rules, but added the government had to act carefully and a lockdown would happen only “if absolutely essential”.
“We still have room to further limit the operation of premises and reduce the chances of residents going out,” she said. “We should look at the city’s actual situation, and not hastily adopt extreme measures if it is not absolutely essential.”
Isolation facilities in public hospitals have been closing in on maximum capacity due to the rapid growth of patients in the past week. Dr Linda Yu Wai-ling, chief manager for the Hospital Authority, said the occupancy rate for isolation wards stood at 82.6 per cent on Saturday.
Since Friday, 46 stable Covid-19 patients have been transferred to the community isolation facility at Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village for further care in a bid to relieve pressure on public hospitals.
AsiaWorld-Expo, the next community facility that will be available to handle Covid-19 patients with light symptoms, was expected to provide about 100 beds within a week at the earliest.
Dr Larry Lee Lap-yip, one of the hospital officials tasked with overseeing the facility, said it would provide basic treatment to patients, including X-ray and pharmacy services.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a government adviser, suggested that if the city’s daily figures remained at 100-plus, a ban on dine-in services for the whole day could be considered for the next round of social-distancing measures.
“We have to wait and see the trend in the next week,” he said. “If the number keeps at a high level, we have to tighten the measures. The main goal is to prevent people gathering at places and to cut off the transmission chains.”
Hui said he believed the government’s previous decision to allow unrestricted sea crew changes in the city had been based on humanitarian grounds, because at one point some 300,000 workers were stuck on vessels because they had not been allowed to disembark at other destinations.
“But the government might have underestimated the risks to Hong Kong, because many of them had been to places with high-infection risks,” he said.
He added even though a tightening of the policy meant pilots and cabin crew had been required to test when arriving by air since July 8, a loophole remained, as they did not have to wait for the results at designated facilities.
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