Closing Hong Kong’s preschool centres to curb the surge in flu outbreaks would have worked better if the government had done it earlier, a top microbiologist said on Friday.
That came as a health official warned the worst was yet to come of the current flu season, and it might arrive before or during Lunar New Year, which starts on February 5.
On Thursday, the government announced an earlier-than-planned Lunar New Year holiday for the city’s about 1,000 kindergartens and childcare centres, which would begin their break on Saturday. More than a third of those institutions had reported flu outbreaks and been told to suspend classes for seven days anyway.
Health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said the decision would be a “preventive measure” to curb the disease’s spread. Microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung from the University of Hong Kong welcomed the move, but said it would have been better a week earlier.
Ho told a radio programme on Friday morning that announcing the changes last week would have been “more decisive”. At least 151 more outbreak cases were reported in kindergartens this week.
“Do not suspend classes progressively. If all kindergartens had been closed last week, the effect of [curbing the spread of flu] might have been even better,” Ho said.
Health authorities last Friday recommended only kindergartens hit by outbreaks suspend classes for seven days, despite the level of cases at the centres already being high.
Since the winter flu season kicked in in late December, kindergartens and childcare centres have borne its brunt, accounting for more than 70 per cent of institutional outbreaks. The weekly number of outbreaks in these facilities increased from 87 in the second week to 153 in the third.
Ho said public hospital wards were badly overcrowded.
“Some colleagues working in hospital wards described [the environment] as similar to a war-zone hospital,” Ho said.
Dr Albert Au Ka-wing, principal medical and health officer from the Centre for Health Protection, said things could get worse before they get better.
“It is possible that the flu season will reach its peak before or during Lunar New Year,” Au said, adding that a peak usually comes about four to six weeks after a flu season begins.
Since the start of the flu season, 194 adults and 16 children have contracted severe flu. Some 86 adults have died from the illness, most of them elderly.
Ho added criticism of the service statistics the Hospital Authority gives out during the flu season. He said they may not help the public get a handle on the situation, because – unlike weekly reports from the Centre for Health Protection – they do not give details such as patients’ ages.