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Hong Kong reimposed a select set of measures to try to protect its most vulnerable from a surging Covid-19 outbreak that is putting the city’s health care system under pressure and forcing the government to take action.
The Asian financial hub will expand testing across the city, while holding off on full-scale closures and tighter mitigation measures that mainland China used to get outbreaks under control. The government is trying to balance the health of its people with its economic needs, officials said.
Those who test positive for Covid will be sent to isolation facilities with their families if any of them are at high risk and their living conditions don’t allow adequate space, Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau said at the daily virus briefing. Patients aged 70 and older who aren’t vaccinated will be sent to specialized venues that can cater to their needs, he said.
"Anyone who says that we can easily live with the virus now as other countries - I will say that I cannot agree with that,” Lo said. "As a responsible government, we have to protect the health of our people, even though they are our elderly. Every life matters.”
Recent moves to cut in half the amount of time travelers from abroad must spend in hotel quarantine to three days hasn’t fueled the increase and didn’t impact the epidemic, he said, showing no sign that additional travel restrictions may be needed. Residents and visitors will need to produce negative results from rapid tests to enter more places including banquets starting on Sunday, he said.
The government can’t promise that additional measures won’t be needed if cases continue to rise, particularly if there is another new variant, he said.
Already the rise of the Ba.4 and BA.5 subvariants are driving new infections, accounting for more than 45% of daily cases now - up from less than 2% a month ago.
Transmission rates have picked up steam in recent days, so that the number of infections may double every two weeks, he said. The total number of new cases could hit or pass 10,000 daily, he said during the briefing, which is still underway.
The financial hub reported 7,835 new Covid cases Friday, up from fewer than 5,000 a month ago. The increasing number of people entering the hospital every day has prompted medical centers to scale back non-emergency services and spurred the reopening of community isolation facilities.
Restoring virus-related restrictions will be seen as a step back for the Asian financial hub, which has struggled to balance reopening its borders with mainland China’s conservative approach to the virus, known as Covid Zero. New restrictions will further distance Hong Kong from other financial centers, including Asian rival Singapore, where nearly all pandemic measures including mandatory mask-wearing have been dismantled.
While cases and hospitalizations are rising, the number of people who are seriously ill remains low. There were 40 patients in critical condition and 13 in intensive care as of Friday. An additional seven patients died.
The virus is reaching deep into the government as well. Police chief Raymong Siu, the head of immigration Au Ka-wang, Commerce Secretary Algernon Yau, Deputy Chief Secretary Cheuk Wing-hing and Deputy Chief Secretary of Administration Warner Cheuk all tested positive this week.