Public hospitals in Hong Kong will strengthen measures against Covid-19 by requiring anyone intending to stay at day wards to undergo screening for the virus before being admitted and ask patients who visit for regular procedures to submit to weekly tests.
The fresh measures were aimed at preventing the spread of the disease after two facilities were hit with outbreaks, authorities said on Tuesday, as they revealed 32 new cases. Four people tied to the cluster at Princess Margaret Hospital Kwai Chung, who earlier tested preliminary positive, were confirmed as infected, taking the number of cases to five. Officials are also trying to contain outbreaks at several housing estates and ordered residents of three more buildings to undergo screening.
“We see the epidemic in the community remains severe,” said Dr Linda Yu Wai-ling, chief manager at the Hospital Authority, following a meeting of the organisation’s senior officials. “We believe these additional measures can strengthen our infection control in hospitals.”
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Beginning later this week, day-ward patients would need to take a test one or two days before being admitted and people requiring regular procedures, such as haemodialysis patients, would be asked to undergo screening every week, Yu said. Food services for day wards would also be restricted, with only light meals provided.
Officials also discussed introducing regular testing for all Hospital Authority staff and giving priority to those caring for vulnerable patients, such as elderly home residents and oncology patients. Thousands of workers could fall into the category, Yu estimated.
“The demand for tests is high, so apart from our own testing service, we don’t rule out asking other private contractors to help too,” she said.
Authorities earlier ordered anyone who had visited the day ward at Princess Margaret between December 28 and Sunday to undergo screening. So far, three patients and two staff have been confirmed as carrying the virus.
A cluster at United Christian Hospital at Kwun Tong has grown to involve 21 patients and staff.
Tuesday’s figures continued a downward trend in the daily caseload and marked the fewest new infections since 26 were recorded on November 20, at the start of the fourth Covid-19 wave. Nine of the latest cases were untraceable, while just one was imported, involving an arrival from Switzerland. More than 20 people tested preliminary-positive. The city’s infection tally now stands at 9,049, with 153 related deaths.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, said three more buildings met the toughened criteria for mandatory screening by recording two or more unrelated infections across a two-week period. The new additions were Affluence Garden’s Civic House in Tuen Mun, Lux Theatre Building Block A in Hung Hom and Po Hei Court’s Wing Hei House in Sham Shui Po.
Chuang also said genetic analysis had revealed five more patients who arrived from overseas had the new, more transmissible variant first found in Britain, taking the total number of cases to 15. The newly identified carriers included arrivals from France and the Philippines.
Among the latest confirmed local cases was a coach at the Salvation Army Cheung Hong Community Day Rehabilitation and Residential Service, a facility for people with severe mental disabilities. Two residents who had been fed by the worker were listed as close contacts and would undergo quarantine.
A courier at Tuen Mun Hospital was also among the latest infections, as well as a patient at Hong Kong Buddhist Hospital in Lok Fu. A close contact of a previous patient linked to a cluster at the construction site at Tseung Kwan O-Lam Tin Tunnel was also confirmed to have the virus, taking the size of the outbreak to 13.
Speaking on a morning radio programme, Dr Michael Wong Lap-gate, Princess Margaret’s deputy chief executive, said the authority needed to weigh how to expand the scope of testing for day-ward patients.
“The number of people staying in hospitals is massive every day,” Wong said. “If we also include those visiting specialist outpatient clinics, I’m afraid we may lack the testing capacity for that. We will prioritise those at highest risk.”
Public hospitals have already been screening all inpatients for the coronavirus. But those who do not stay overnight, such as patients visiting day wards or outpatient clinics, had yet to be included.
In 2019-2020, public hospitals recorded a daily average of 2,628 visits to day wards, with 683,323 visits for the entire year.
Experts believe an infected patient at Princess Margaret, a 66-year-old woman who suffered from a type of bone marrow cancer, spread the virus to others after taking off her mask to eat lunch in the day ward.
Dr Ho Pak-leung, a leading microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, suggested patients could be divided into batches when eating meals to minimise contact when their masks were off.
He also warned that the public should not let down their guard, despite the recent downward trend in new infections.
“Up to 20 people got infected within a short period of time for the cluster that emerged at the construction site in Tseung Kwan O … If another ‘super-spreader’ cluster emerges like the one at dance clubs in October, the number can rise again quickly,” he said.
Additional reporting by Natalie Wong
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