Two Cathay Pacific freighter pilots exempted from quarantine were among four imported preliminary-positive coronavirus cases reported in Hong Kong on Tuesday, one of which triggered an overnight lockdown of a Tsim Sha Tsui residential block for compulsory testing.
Health officials were particularly concerned about the contagion risks posed by one of the pilot cases, given the high viral load involved, and they warned the public to observe all lockdown and testing orders imposed to prevent the virus from spreading.
The pair tested positive for the L452R mutation, which is linked to the more infectious Delta variant, three days after their November 6 return to Hong Kong from Frankfurt. They had tested negative three times in the preceding two weeks including on arrival.
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The 29-year-old pilot, who lives in Tsim Sha Tsui, started experiencing symptoms on Monday and recorded cycle threshold (CT) values between 13 and 16. The other pilot, who lives in Discovery Bay, was asymptomatic and registered CT values of 31 to 34. The lower the CT value, the higher the viral level and more infectious the person may be.
Under government rules, local cargo flight operating crew are allowed to re-enter the community without isolating, subject to self-health monitoring checks. But the new infections detected in the city are likely to raise fresh questions over the quarantine-exemption privileges for aircrew.
“Due to the presence of mutant strain with higher transmissibility and risk of infection, the government has made a ‘restriction-testing declaration’ ... and the places where the two patients had visited in Hong Kong during the incubation period will also be included in a compulsory testing notice,” the government said in a statement.
Top pandemic government adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said one week of quarantine should be considered as the minimum for aircrew, who he added should all receive a third dose of the BioNTech vaccine as soon as possible.
“[Mainland] China has picked on the exemption groups before,” he said, urging Hong Kong to follow suit.
Freighter pilots are exempt from quarantine on their return to Hong Kong from medium-risk countries and below such as Germany.
The Harbour Pinnacle tower block in Tsim Sha Tsui, which is home to the 29-year-old pilot, was slapped with a compulsory testing order at 7pm on Tuesday, making it mandatory for all residents there to undergo screening for the virus.
The operation concluded at 7am on Wednesday, with authorities testing 300 residents and finding no infections. But out of 260 households checked, 110 did not come to the door, the government said.
“Cathay Pacific received notification from the health authorities in Hong Kong regarding two freighter pilots who have tested preliminary positive,” a spokeswoman for the airline said.
“The flight crew members involved are receiving appropriate medical care. All assistance and support is also being provided to other flight crew.”
About two dozen aircrew and their families had been sent to quarantine camps, a source said.
Tuesday’s two other preliminary cases involved a 30-year-old and 15-year-old who had completed six rounds of testing and 21 days of quarantine. Both sets of results recorded low viral loads.
The government said the results might have been “re-positives”, a theory it said could not at this stage be confirmed or excluded. The places where they lived and visited would also be subject to compulsory testing notices.
The preliminary cases were reported just hours after Hong Kong’s leader expressed hope that Beijing would soften its stance on a potential circuit-breaker for suspending quarantine-free travel between mainland China and the city, should Covid-19 infections emerge locally.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said that long-running talks to reopen the border were “progressing well”, but called the suspension mechanism a “core” issue that would have to be resolved.
“The central and SAR governments both understand completely Hong Kong’s current top priority, which is quarantine-free, orderly entry into the mainland,” Lam told reporters before her weekly Executive Council meeting.
“We of course do not want the suspension mechanism to be too strict. From the mainland authorities’ perspective, however, they would prefer a stricter approach so as not to bring extra infection risks to them. That’s why we need to sit down and talk.”
Lam added she hoped a second meeting between the two sides would be held soon, arguing that whether infections were imported or local should also be a factor “when deciding what kind of cases would trigger the suspension mechanism”.
The first meeting attended by officials and health experts took place in September in Shenzhen. Led by Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu on the Hong Kong side, the delegation came back with no timetable and few signs of the deadlock being broken.
Lee revealed at the time that the city was told it had to improve in three broad areas, spanning its screening requirements for inbound travellers, quarantine system and overall approach to risk, but he said nothing about a circuit-breaker.
The chief executive on Tuesday said Hong Kong had basically maintained zero local infections, pointing out that three non-traceable cases confirmed over the past few months were eventually found to be linked with imported ones.
In Macau, a handful of locally transmitted cases last month involving workers at quarantine hotels led to a temporary shutdown of its quarantine-free arrangement with the mainland city of Zhuhai.
Respiratory medicine expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu suggested the circuit-breaker mechanism for Hong Kong should only be triggered if there was community spread of the virus, not whenever there was a confirmed case.
“If a case working at the airport or quarantine hotels is found positive in frequent testing, it is possible to just consider it as an import-related case, to avoid triggering the circuit-breaker mechanism,” Leung told a radio programme.
He added that confirmed cases found among high-risk and high-exposure groups could usually be identified early because of the testing procedures, making the risk of community spread low.
In the event of the mechanism being triggered, Leung said it would be appropriate to resume the scheme after there had been no community transmission for at least 14 days.
On Tuesday, health authorities in Hong Kong confirmed just one imported coronavirus infection, involving a fully vaccinated arrival from the United States. The city’s case tally now stands at 12,369, with 213 related deaths.
The government announced its employees would be offered an extra day of leave after taking a third dose of Covid-19 vaccine. All staff who have received at least one dose on or before September 30 are eligible.
At the same time, the administration is tightening testing requirements for those employees who are not vaccinated. Those who have not received any shots must undergo screening once a week from November 22, compared with the current fortnightly requirement. There are exemptions from testing for those certified as unfit for the jabs.
In a separate development, the Airport Authority announced that all staff at the transport hub – including airline crew, cargo handlers and cleaners – would be required to take their third Covid-19 jab by April 30 next year, citing the government recommendation for high-exposure groups to receive their booster shots six months after their second one. Hong Kong starts administering third doses on Thursday, initially to vulnerable groups such as the elderly.
Meanwhile, a government spokesman confirmed that current social-distancing measures, including mask-wearing and caps on the number of patrons at premises, would be extended again for another two weeks.
He added that authorities were looking into further steps to “stringently enforce” the use of the “Leave Home Safe” app at restaurants and other venues to improve contact tracing and protect staff.
Use of the risk-exposure app is compulsory for anyone entering government facilities, including wet markets, sports grounds and homeless shelters.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun recently suggested that mandatory use of the app should be extended to visitors at shops and other private businesses.
Additional reporting by Danny Mok and Jack Tsang
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