Covid-19 cases at Hong Kong schools have climbed to their highest level since in-person classes resumed months ago, while a leading health official has warned infections may soon cross into the four digits.
But even with infections climbing, no tightening of social-distancing rules was needed at this stage as the subvariants of the Omicron strain circulating in the city did not pose a risk of severe illness, medical experts on Monday said.
“We expect that there is a chance that after a period of time that the [number of daily cases] will rise to a four-digit number or a low four-digit number,” said Dr Albert Au Ka-wing, principal medical and health officer at the Centre for Health Protection, noting the daily caseload had already increased to about 800 from 300 over the past two weeks. “I believe that the government and experts are closely monitoring the latest situation.”
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Au attributed the rising trend in infections to the relaxation of social-distancing measures and the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant.
Despite the increase in cases, Au said other epidemic indicators, such as the hospitalisation rate, percentage of serious cases and fatality rate, had not shown signs of increase.
Health authorities confirmed 737 new infections on Monday, of which 104 were imported.
The number of infections linked to schools was also the highest since in-person teaching resumed in mid-April, comprising 216 students and 59 members of staff.
The number of schools involved reached 193, with four facing outbreaks. Each of the four institutions required one of their classes to suspend lessons this week.
No additional Covid-related deaths were confirmed by health authorities.
The city’s tally of confirmed cases stood at 1,219,912, with 9,390 related fatalities.
Other cases included two cleaners employed by the Regala Skycity Hotel, one of whom was suspected of having contracted one of the more transmissive Omicron subvariants, either BA.4 or BA.5.
Another housekeeper from the hotel had previously tested positive for Covid-19, with a member of her family among the new cases on Monday.
Au said 10 travellers staying at the hotel earlier this month were also confirmed cases, with authorities conducting genome sequencing to determine whether there was any connection with the earlier case. He added that he believed there was an epidemiological link between the cases involving the latest two infected cleaners.
Coronavirus clusters linked to prominent nightspots in Hong Kong also worsened, with three more cases connected to Racks City in Central and seven more linked to FLM in Sheung Wan. A construction site in Ho Man Tin also reported three infections.
However, Dr Gilman Siu Kit-hang, an associate professor at PolyU’s department of health technology and informatics, told the Post that he did not see a need to tighten restrictions at the moment.
“I don’t think there is such a need as long as [cases] don’t pose a big burden to the public healthcare system since the disease severity caused by the current strains is similar,” he said.
Siu said he was more concerned by the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, as research showed they could evade antibodies protection 4.2 times more effectively than BA.2, the strain that sparked the recent fifth coronavirus wave in the city.
He explained that BA.4 and BA.5, which had spread quickly and now accounted for as much as 14 per cent of reported cases in the United States, could lead to a higher chance of reinfection and drive up caseloads in Hong Kong as the antibodies residents acquired during the fifth wave faltered in the face of these subvariants.
But even though he agreed cases would continue to increase, the academic said Hong Kong did not need to tighten border or community Covid-19 rules, until the emergence of a new variant that could overwhelm local hospitals with severe cases.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung said the city could not yet be considered as having entered the sixth wave as a new variant had not emerged.
He also affirmed Au’s statement that the daily caseload could reach four digits later this month, but said it should not warrant too much concern and epidemic measures would not need to be tightened if the vaccination rate was high enough.
“Approaching July 1, it’s quite likely caseloads will be in four digits, even in the region of 2,000 and 3,000 new cases,” Ho said.
Meanwhile, Dr Michael Wong Lap-gate, a Hospital Authority chief manager, said frontline staff would be “flexible” and allow one-time entry to its premises for those who had failed to comply with a new rule under the vaccine pass scheme.
As of Monday, patients must have received three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, or get a negative result with a polymerase chain reaction test within 48 hours, to enter 13 types of health facilities including specialist clinics.
Wong told a radio show he understood the inconvenience and confusion the new policy might cause at first to patients, but insisted the change was needed to protect users as hospitals were “high-risk venues” that required tougher infection-control measures.
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