Hong Kong confirmed 81 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, continuing its ongoing surge a day after the city’s leader set a “zero infection” target in her annual policy address which sparked a fierce debate on whether this could be achieved through mandatory testing and lockdowns.
Fifty-nine of the new Covid-19 cases were from an expanding “super-spreader” outbreak among dance venues which has become the city’s largest to date, with a total of 311 infections so far.
Thirteen cases were locally transmitted and untraceable, and six were imported, while more than 60 people tested preliminary positive.
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In her policy speech on Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor spoke of the possibility of launching another citywide testing scheme in a bid to achieve the target of “zero infection” if she could get public support and cooperation.
But she later appeared to backtrack, suggesting at a post-address press conference that she had mentioned the ambitious target as more of an attempt to reassure the public.
“The definition of ‘zero infection’ depends on who you ask,” she said without elaborating further.
Some health professionals have suggested the term “zero infection” could be applied to all Covid-19 cases being traceable, while others have insisted the definition should stick to the literal meaning of the phrase.
When questioned in the Legislative Council on Thursday, Lam did not use the specific term, saying only that all policies needed to take acceptability by the public into account.
“From the public health point of view, it seems there is no 100 per cent guarantee … the most important thing is to prevent a rebound, and a spread after a rebound,” Lam said, adding that members of the public would not accept the government banning their children from returning to Hong Kong to spend Christmas at home, for example.
Lam’s remarks reignited and intensified debate on how the city should break the coronavirus transmission chain, especially given that mainland China has refused to reopen its borders with Hong Kong unless it does a better job.
Her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, weighed in by piling more pressure on her in a Facebook post, telling her to face down her critics and “firmly tell” Hongkongers to achieve zero infection.
“Do it or die,” Leung said bluntly, as he reiterated the pro-establishment camp’s long-standing demand for Covid-19 cases to be reduced to zero so that Hong Kong could resume cross-border business.
Regarding the possible return of “large-scale universal community testing”, Leung’s successor on Wednesday admitted that mandatory testing for the whole population would require a month-long, citywide lockdown – which would be unacceptable to many residents.
Lam said she would not rule out a partial lockdown if there was an outbreak in a district or involving a particular group of people.
Public health experts have called for drastic measures for the city to succeed in getting rid of the coronavirus completely.
Respiratory medicine expert Professor David Hui Shu-cheong from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who advises the government on the coronavirus, cited the mainland as one of the few nations in the world that could do it.
“But it has to pay a high price by imposing localised lockdowns for two or more weeks, and it requires high discipline and compliance by residents,” Hui said.
But Winnie Yu Wai-ming, chairwoman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, a union representing frontline medical staff who went on strike at the start of the pandemic in a bid to force full border closures with the mainland, said no cross-border travel should be allowed at all.
She urged officials to immediately suspend a scheme that allowed Hongkongers to return to the city from Guangdong province and Macau without having to undergo quarantine if they tested negative for the virus on the day of the journey or three days earlier.
Thursday’s infection tally marked the third straight day of 80 or more confirmed cases, underscoring the severity of the fourth wave of the pandemic. The city has recorded 5,947 confirmed cases so far, with 108 related deaths.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, said at a regular press conference that mandatory testing was required for people who had recently visited seven venues linked to the dance cluster – Lucky Dragon Palace Restaurant in Ngau Chi Wan, Lucky Dragon Restaurant in Shek Kip Mei, Bandstage Live Music in Wong Tai Sin, A&B Dance Studio in Causeway Bay, Rendezvous Arts in Prince Edward, and Philip Wain International Healthy and Beauty in Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui.
“It seems many people have gone to Bandstage Live Music on the night of November 20, while some performers who have also been to other dance venues were confirmed. Other places like some restaurants had dance gatherings, so there could be some transmissions there,” Chuang said.
A 77-year-old private doctor who last worked at his clinic in Fu Shun House in Fu Shan Estate near Choi Hung was among the new patients in that cluster. He started feeling unwell on Monday but still went to work for two days before testing positive.
Thursday marked the start of a seven-day closure of bars, nightclubs and bathhouses, while the Leisure and Cultural Services Department stopped bookings for indoor dance activities until further notice.
The 13 new untraceable cases included a 15-year-old girl studying at Fukien Secondary School in Siu Sai Wan.
A 25-year-old woman who trained at the Hong Kong Customs College in Tai Lam in Tuen Mun was also among those infected without an identifiable source.
Meanwhile, the government revealed that over 20,000 public and private establishments had joined its Leave Home Safe contact tracing programme, and more than 200,000 people had downloaded the app which would allow them to record their travel footprint and be notified of the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Separately, Dr Linda Yu Wai-ling, a chief manager at the Hospital Authority, said six people had been told via SMS that they had tested negative when they were actually infected.
“We handled the six [false negative] cases under our usual mechanism by contacting the patient to be admitted [to the hospital], so there was no delay in arranging care for the six confirmed patients,” Yu said.
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