A care home for the elderly at the centre of a sudden new community outbreak of Covid-19 was suspected of violating government guidelines by sharing staff with another facility, as Hong Kong confirmed 19 new locally transmitted cases on Wednesday, some of them of unknown origin.
Health officials reported a total of 24 new cases, with the 19 local cases accounting for the highest single-day tally in more than three months, as they warned the city was facing a major community outbreak while battling a third wave of infections.
The surge in cases took the city’s total to 1,323, with seven deaths, while the number of schools suspending face-to-face classes amid the recent spike rose to at least 13.
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Several of Wednesday’s new cases were linked to the Kong Tai Care for the Aged Centre Limited in Tsz Wan Shan, where concerns were raised over the practice of sharing staff with another facility upstairs.
Employers hope to meet the CHP's recommendations, but in reality, whether they are able to do so is another issue
Kenneth Chan, chairman of the Elderly Services Association
“We are worried there will be a major community outbreak, as many of these cases do not have identifiable sources of infection,” Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch at the Centre for Health Protection (CHP), told a press briefing.
Eight of Wednesday's cases were linked to the care home in Tsz Wan Shan, taking the total there to nine, but the source of infection for five of the 11 other local cases had yet to be traced.
Health officials classified five of the new cases as imported – two from India and the Philippines and one from Kazakhstan.
Chuang said one of the confirmed cases at the care home for the elderly involved a cleaner who worked for both the stricken centre and another one on a higher floor in the same building.
“I understand there are some part-time staff in the affected home for the elderly that also work in another home for the elderly above it, so we are testing the staff and residents of the home for the elderly above as well,” she said.
Chaung also revealed that one of the residents, aged 79, had left the centre and spent time in the community before he was confirmed to have the coronavirus, while three visitors to the care home over the last few days had been sent to quarantine facilities.
According to the CHP’s revised guidelines updated on July 3, care homes for the elderly “should avoid as far as possible deploying staff to work in different residential care homes” to prevent the spread of the disease.
But Kenneth Chan Chi-yuk, chairman of the Elderly Services Association of Hong Kong, said following the guidelines was not always possible.
“If you stop such a practice, who can fill those vacancies? Employers hope to meet the CHP's recommendations, but in reality, whether they are able to do so is another issue,” he said.
The Social Welfare Department said it had advised elderly care homes to observe the guidelines but did not comment on any possible violations at the Tsz Wan Shan facility.
Of the other 11 locally transmitted cases, five sources of infection could not be traced involving residents from across the city, including those living in Tsz Wan Shan, Tsuen Wan, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, according to Chuang.
One involved a 42-year-old woman living in Tsuen Wan who visited several places with her son during her virus incubation period, including a parents’ meeting for primary-level pupils at the Diocesan Boys’ School, which suspended classes from Wednesday as a precaution.
Another untraceable case was that of a 31-year-old Wan Chai worker living at Leighton Hill, Causeway Bay. Two of his colleagues have been quarantined.
“Quite a number of these cases were involved in gatherings and visited many places during their incubation period, making tracing [the source of infection] difficult,” Chuang said.
The remaining six local cases could be associated with two restaurants in Choi Hung and Jordan, which earlier reported infections, as well as a suspected cluster of taxi drivers now numbering four.
Joining the tally of patients linked with the Bun Kee Congee and Noodle Foods in Choi Hung was a 41-year-old woman who had never visited the shop but was connected to it through her husband and son, who both tested positive after eating there or using its takeaway service. A 71-year-old man who ate at the shop has also contracted the virus.
Three people who dined at Sun Fat Restaurant in Jordan – a 61-year-old male taxi driver, a 60-year-old woman and a 59-year-old man – were also counted in Wednesday’s coronavirus tally after a waiter there was confirmed as infected a day earlier.
A 55-year-old male taxi driver with Covid-19 was in a critical condition. His daughter, 12, tested preliminary positive. In response her school, Our Lady's College, announced it would suspend classes for two weeks.
Responding to the rush of new cases associated with eateries, Chuang of the CHP encouraged people to switch to takeaways, stressing that it was now time to tighten up Hong Kong's anti-epidemic measures.
Health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said on Tuesday night that visits to elderly care homes were immediately suspended as the government reviewed the city’s Covid-19 policies, and a further announcement would follow soon.
Under new measures announced after the confirmation on Tuesday of 14 cases, including nine local infections, foreign domestic workers will be required to undergo pre-boarding coronavirus screening before flying to Hong Kong, and employers must arrange a 14-day mandatory quarantine for them at designated hotels in the city upon arrival.
Dr David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory medicine expert at Chinese University who is advising the government on the coronavirus pandemic, said Hong Kong might need to reintroduce tough social-distancing measures after easing them over the past weeks.
He warned of the possibility of suspending schools and restrictions on the number of people allowed to dine together. Presently, tables in a bar can seat a maximum of eight, but that restriction has been lifted for restaurants.
Among the 13 education institutions that have been suspended for 14 days are CCC Rotary Secondary School, and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, after each reported that one of their students had been infected.
Other suspensions were decided after relatives of school goers becoming infected, or in response to students, teachers and parents coming into contact with Covid-19 patients.
Despite having no link with new infections, Dr Catherine F Woo Memorial School in Sha Tin decided to move forward the start of the summer break as a precaution, with most going on holiday from Thursday.
Additional reporting by Chris Lau and Chan Ho-him
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