Coronavirus: two more women infected after visiting Hong Kong temple at centre of Covid-19 cluster

Karen Zhang

Two more women who visited a Buddhist temple at the centre of a cluster of coronavirus infections in Hong Kong were confirmed to have contracted Covid-19 on Thursday, taking the city’s total to 93.

The 13th and 14th confirmed cases at the worship hall brought the number of infections connected to the city’s North Point area to 25, prompting calls for health authorities to thoroughly trace the possible links among these and future cases in the neighbourhood.

Speaking at a press conference, Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan from the Centre for Health Protection said the 92nd confirmed case, a 70-year-old who lives in Bauhinia Garden, Tseung Kwan O, had visited North Point’s Fook Wai Ching She temple multiple times between January 24 and February 8, spending a few hours there each time.

She started coughing on February 13 and twice consulted a private doctor before being hospitalised on Wednesday, according to Chuang.

Even if the cases didn’t live there, it’s possible that they got infections when working or visiting the district. The department should … find out if there is a connection

Dr Joseph Tsang, infectious disease expert

“[The patient] saw the situation of Fook Wai Ching She in North Point on the news and called our hotline, and was sent to United Christian Hospital,” she said.

The second woman had been coughing since February 25 and sought treatment at Anne Blake out-patient clinic in North Point on Wednesday. Her infection was confirmed on Thursday and she is said to be in stable condition in Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She had no travel history during the incubation period.

The 89-year-old woman, who lives alone in North Point, visited the temple on January 25 and on many occasions between February 1 and 12.

The Fook Wai Ching She worship hall is located inside the Maylun Apartments in North Point. Photo: Google Map

Earlier in the day, Chuang said authorities had not yet been able to find the source of the outbreak at the temple.

“We have not yet identified the exact source of infection, but we suspect [the virus] was transmitted through gathering and through person-to-person contact, through droplets and other environmental contamination, possibly,” she said.

“We can only identify some patients with early [symptoms], but the earliest was only on February 8, so the investigation is still ongoing.”

She said authorities had so far contacted 221 people who had visited the temple, putting 35 in quarantine and others on medical surveillance.

According to Department of Health information, at least 25 confirmed patients had visited North Point near the dates they were confirmed to be infected, accounting for more than one-fourth of the city’s total.

Six of the confirmed cases dined at the same seafood restaurant, 14 have been linked to the Buddhist hall, while the rest either live in the area or visited commercial buildings there. The city’s 85th case falls among the latter category.

When asked whether the department would specifically focus on North Point to look for more connections, Chuang did not answer directly, saying only that majority of links established in the area tied back to the temple or seafood restaurant clusters.

But infectious disease expert Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan said the high number of cases in North Point called for a proper probe by health authorities.

“I think it’s necessary for the government to check whether infected patients or upcoming individual cases have visited North Point during the incubation period, because the number of confirmed cases related to the district is high,” he said.

“Even if the cases didn’t live there, it’s possible that they got infections when working or visiting the district. The department should look into their detailed traces and find out if there is a connection carefully.”

Lee Yue-shun, a council member for Eastern District, in which North Point is located, also believes the department should find out whether confirmed cases had visited any public areas in the district so residents could take appropriate precautions. Lee added that the Buddhist worship hall had been closed since February 17.

“I hope the department can enhance communication with concerned parties and disclose more information on the confirmed cases, so potential infections because of delays or lack of information can be avoided,” he said.

Lee noted how the disinfection of the Buddhist hall had been delayed because the department was unable to reach the person in charge of the hall immediately.

“They could have reached Incorporated Owners of the building for the information, but they didn’t,” he said.

Asked when the outbreak might subside, Chuang said: “There are still cases with unknown sources in the community, so I cannot predict when the outbreak will die out.”

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To expand surveillance, Chuang said authorities were arranging for the collection of deep throat saliva samples at private clinics to test.

“We may contact about 50 private medical practitioners who joined our sentinel surveillance system to give them some empty bottles for the tests,” she said.

Chuang also said government officials were studying whether immigration controls need to be enhanced for visitors from countries such as Italy and Iran, where the outbreak is ongoing.

As of Thursday, 65 confirmed cases were being treated in 10 public hospitals. Among that group, one was in critical condition and four were deemed serious.

So far, 26 patients confirmed to have the virus have been discharged.

Hospital Authority chief manager, Dr Sara Ho Yuen-ha, said more than 2,100 people at outpatient clinics and emergency rooms had been given a deep throat saliva sample test in the past week.

The screening test was given to adults who had a fever and other respiratory infection symptoms, to identify patients with the novel coronavirus.

Ho said authorities were considering enlarging the scheme to cover those under 18, after two patients with the virus were identified this way.

Meanwhile, the Hospital Authority said it was working out the necessary details to launch clinical trials of the experimental antiviral drug Remdesivir for treating Covid-19.

“The Hospital Authority was notified by the pharmaceutical company [US-based Gilead Sciences] that local clinical trials can be launched today,” Ho said. “We are now working on the details of arranging the trials with experts including which patients should join.”

The company announced on Wednesday that it was widening clinical trials outside mainland China, with two new clinical studies involving about 1,000 patients to start next month at medical centres in Asia and other global areas with high numbers of diagnosed cases.

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