Hong Kong’s Covid-19 vaccination programme received a substantial boost on Tuesday, with an eightfold surge in online reservations after the government lowered the eligibility threshold for recipients to 30 years amid a faltering take-up rate affected by persistent concerns about possible side effects.
Online bookings for the two Covid-19 vaccines jumped to 144,000 from 18,600 a day earlier, while three of the 19 centres offering the BioNTech vaccine and 17 of the 18 public clinics providing the Sinovac shots were fully booked for the next two weeks or more.
At the same time sources said current anti-pandemic measures – including a four-person cap on gatherings and a requirement that people log their contact information when dining at restaurants – would be extended for another 14 days.
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The city confirmed 18 new infections on Tuesday – 13 locally transmitted and five imported. Of the local cases, five were linked to Ursus Fitness, the Sai Ying Pun gym at the centre of the latest super-spreading cluster.
Two of the latest confirmed cases were untraceable – a 38-year-old man who worked at HSBC headquarters in Central and last went to the office on Monday, and a 41-year-old woman who is a US consulate staff member and was most recently at work on Friday.
The woman’s husband, who is also her work colleague, was confirmed to be infected as well and is believed to have contracted the virus from her. One of their daughters has also tested preliminary-positive, pending official confirmation.
HSBC would also temporarily close its main Central headquarters after discovering three cases, a source said. Authorities also issued a compulsory testing order for the building, requiring anyone who visited the premises for more than two hours since March 3 to undergo screening.
The five new Ursus Fitness cases took the total number of infections in the gym cluster to 127. The citywide infection tally now stands at 11,329, with 203 related deaths. About 10 preliminary-positive cases were also logged on Tuesday.
In a reflection of health authorities’ continuing cautiousness, sources said current social-distancing restrictions, which were set to expire on Wednesday, would be extended till the end of the month. The arrangements include those for the food and beverage industry, such as halting dine-in services in restaurants after 10pm, requiring patrons to either use the “Leave Home Safe” exposure-notification app or register their personal information, and capping the number of diners per table at four.
The online booking platform for Covid-19 vaccinations experienced a surge of interest on Tuesday morning as authorities widened the scheme to include all residents aged 30 and above, along with other select groups.
Those seeking appointments through the booking website encountered waiting times of 10 to 30 minutes on the first day of the expanded inoculation drive.
Slots were filled up within hours for the next 2½ weeks at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park Sports Centre in Sai Ying Pun, the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital in Happy Valley, and the Tung Chung Community Hall, all of which are administering the BioNTech vaccine.
Seventeen of the 18 public clinics offering the Sinovac shots were also fully booked until the start of April, but none of quotas at community vaccination centres offering the vaccine were filled up yet. Slots were also available at five other centres offering the BioNTech shots, with free spaces available as early as this Saturday.
The booking system requires applicants to enter their name, identity document number and the group under which they are eligible for the doses, such as “persons aged 30 years or above”.
They can choose to receive the jab at any one of the city’s community vaccination centres or the Hospital Authority’s 18 general outpatient clinics.
Once the reservation has been made, the person holding the slot should receive an SMS confirming the date with a reference number.
On Monday, the government announced it was expanding the programme to cover 5.5 million people – about 80 per cent of the city’s population who are aged 16 or older – by lowering the eligibility age threshold from 60 to 30, while adding foreign domestic helpers and students studying overseas to the scheme.
About 23,000 slots are now on offer each day for the Chinese-made Sinovac and German-manufactured BioNTech vaccines, as health authorities give the mass roll-out a push amid concerns about possible side effects.
Eleven people were sent to hospital on Monday after experiencing complications following inoculation. Nine were discharged after treatment and two were admitted for observation.
Five received the Sinovac shot and the others took the BioNTech one, including a 61-year-old man who suffered a stroke and was sent to Princess Margaret Hospital. A 30-year-old recipient of the BioNTech jab suffered a vasovagal attack marked by a rapid drop in heart rate and blood pressure, resulting in decreased blood flow to the brain and fainting. She was discharged after treatment.
Another hospital admission involved a 35-year-old woman who suffered a severe allergic reaction marked by a rash and shortness of breath after receiving the BioNTech shot. She was in stable condition.
Seven people with chronic illnesses have died in recent weeks after taking the Sinovac shot, but experts so far have found no connection with the vaccination.
The city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, sought to reassure the public on Tuesday that there was no evidence of Sinovac causing side effects and health complications.
She also had reservations about making vaccination compulsory.
“I have doubts on whether mandatory vaccination would lead to the outcome we want,” she said, pointing to some residents living in buildings subject to mandatory screening orders revealing they would rather be fined than tested.
Since the city started the inoculation drive in late February, about 229,300 people have received their first vaccine shot – 176,300 took the Sinovac jab and 53,000 opted for the BioNTech version.
Recounting her rush to book an appointment, one 41-year-old woman said she discovered at around 10am that openings to receive the BioNTech jabs on Friday were quickly filling up. She booked her first shot for Saturday.
“I am afraid that once the BioNTech stock runs out the government is not going to replenish it or be able to do so,” said the woman who did not want to give her full name. “Then we are going to be forced to choose Sinovac. It is better to get it done quickly when I still get to choose.”
Koen Roeyers, who works in logistics, said he only had to wait a few minutes to secure a booking.
“I am very eager to get vaccinated to protect myself and others,” said the 51-year-old, who booked a BioNTech jab. “I want to contribute to reaching herd immunity in Hong Kong so we can have the prospect of returning to normal pre-pandemic life.”
Jason Lewis, a 46-year-old who works in marketing, also praised the process, saying he wanted to play his part in helping the community achieve full immunity. The faster people signed up for jabs, the quicker social-distancing rules could be eased, he said, adding: “In my case I am desperate to swim in a pool.”
Tung Ng, 40, who works in finance, booked a BioNTech jab but was also seeking medical advice given he was previously treated for the coronavirus.
“So I’m not exactly sure whether I should take this vaccine or not,” he said. “I will have a follow-up doctor’s appointment, [and I] will consult the doctor on whether I should take the vaccine considering my Covid-19 history.”
Some people went to extreme lengths to secure a booking. Nathan Cheung, who works in the technology sector, opened up 17 windows of his internet browser to ensure he secured an early appointment. The 35-year-old said he was keen to vaccinate himself against the virus as his wife was heavily pregnant.
As many as 400,000 foreign domestic helpers were now also eligible for shots but many were still trying to fully educate themselves about the programme, according to Johannie Tong Hiu-yan of the advocacy group Mission For Migrant Workers.
Tong called on the government to provide clear information on the importance of getting vaccinated and the possible side effects in the mother tongue of foreign domestic workers, mainly Tagalog or Bahasa Indonesia. She hoped employers would not pressure domestic workers into taking shots and instead leave the decision up to individuals based on their health condition.
The Post has approached the consulates of the Philippines and Indonesia for comment.
The uptake rate will increase if the public is given more choices of vaccine that are approved by other countries and recognised by the World Health Organization
Dr Joseph Tsang, infectious diseases expert
Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, the minister overseeing the vaccination drive, said the scheme was expanded based on public demand and in the hopes the general working population would sign up.
“We’ve received opinions that some members of the public also wanted to get vaccinated but they were not under the priority groups. Meanwhile others had a wait-and-see approach … which is why we decided to expand the scheme,” Nip said. “The 30-to 59-year-old age group makes up a large part of the working population, encompassing residents across sectors.”
Infectious diseases expert Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan said he believed the surge in vaccination bookings came from the working population and business travellers who likely saw inoculation as a condition for exemption from quarantine and travel restrictions in the future.
Asked whether most of the population could be vaccinated by the end of the year, Tsang said it hinged on availability.
“The uptake rate will increase if the public is given more choices of vaccines that are approved by other countries and recognised by the World Health Organization,” he said. “If there is enough supply, then people are more likely to get the jab.”
Relaxation of social-distancing measures, such as removing the cap on diners per table, could also encourage more people to get vaccinated, he added.
Health experts have expressed concern the ballooning gym cluster could kick off the fifth wave of the coronavirus and Nip stressed that containing the spread of the disease was the government’s top priority.
The minister called on everyone eligible for shots to sign up, adding progress in the inoculation drive might prompt the government to review social-distancing rules.
Meanwhile, authorities tested 710 people in an overnight lockdown of seven buildings in the Sai Ying Pun area popular with expatriates and found no cases. Ten people however were unable to show they had complied and been tested.
Infectious disease specialist Dr Ho Pak-leung cautioned that while the government had moved swiftly to trace close contacts linked to the gym cluster and lock down nearby residential areas, Covid-19 had a long incubation period and asymptomatic carriers could still spread the virus to others.
Ho said about half the carriers tied to the Ursus Fitness outbreak were aged between 30 and 39, while a quarter were between 40 and 49. Most of them were in stable condition.
“The number of traceable cases has been dropping, particularly those directly linked to the gym cluster, so I think we passed the peak,” Ho said. “But whether there will be any [new chains] of transmission will depend on whether there are any cases emerging from other high-risk venues like restaurants.”
Additional reporting by Gigi Choy, Danny Mok and Danny Lee
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