Hundreds of private doctors in Hong Kong are already grappling with flu vaccine shortages amid an unprecedented demand before the winter influenza season and a predicted fourth Covid-19 wave, the medical profession has warned.
Officials had vowed to help practitioners secure some extra shots if they were taking part in the government inoculation effort, Medical Association president Dr Gabriel Choi Kin said after meeting health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee on Monday night.
Chan also discussed ways to compel people with mild coronavirus symptoms to be tested, although the idea was met with some scepticism.
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The talks came as Hong Kong confirmed 15 new Covid-19 cases, all but one of them imported. The community infection involved the close contact of a previous patient, marking the third straight day all local cases were traceable.
The number of residents seeking flu shots has tripled this year, leading to the shortages at many private practices, according to Dr Henry Yeung Chiu-fat, president of the city’s Doctors Union. Members reported at least 30,000 more doses would be needed to meet demand, he said.
“Some people used to go to government outpatient clinics to get the flu vaccine, but this year, they changed to private clinics, because some of them might not want to go to public hospitals amid the Covid-19 pandemic,” Yeung said. “There are also residents who have never had a flu vaccine and hope to get an injection this year.”
Choi confirmed the shortage, saying a limited number of doses from three major overseas suppliers would arrive in November at the earliest.
Fifteen private clinics in different districts contacted by the Post all said they were out of flu vaccines and were turning residents away. Fees ranged from HK$300 (US$39) to HK$700.
The UMP Medical Centre in Causeway Bay already had a waiting list of 95 people, a staff member said.
We’ve placed orders from suppliers a month ago, but have no idea when we will be restocked
UMP Medical Centre
“We’ve placed orders from suppliers a month ago, but have no idea when we will be restocked,” she said.
But in a bid to ease the shortfall, officials would work with suppliers to find extra shots for private doctors who had enrolled in the government vaccination programme to give jabs to “high risk” groups, including those with chronic illnesses, pregnant women and children, Choi said. The practitioners would not be allowed to charge extra fees.
“Participating doctors have to report to the government how many flu shots they would need, and have to promise not to charge extra money,” said Choi, predicting the arrangement could be rolled out as early as one or two weeks.
The government has procured 878,000 doses for the flu season, 63,000 more than in the previous year, according to a Department of Health spokesman.
But they would all be used in government vaccination programmes, with the first free shots being given to children at 450 primary schools and 760 kindergartens, as well as childcare centres that have signed up, starting on Thursday.
Residents 65 years or older are also eligible for a free vaccination at public clinics, or a HK$240 subsidy if they choose to go the private route.
According to University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Ho Pak-leung, the number of doses procured by the government is the highest in the past four years but will still not be enough.
“Referring to the winter flu peak period last year, the demand for primary school students and the elderly reached more than 800,000 doses of vaccine and that will definitely not be enough to meet demand this year,” he said.
According to the Centre for Health Protection, 1.2 million Hong Kong residents in high-risk groups received free or subsidised flu vaccinations under government programmes between last winter and this August. Ho suggested the government allowed private clinics, now facing restocking difficulties, to procure doses from health authorities.
The government is weighing the option of forcing some high-risk groups to undergo mandatory testing. But Choi said some private doctors were concerned at being responsible for enforcing such a measure.
“The government must clearly list what kind of symptoms would require mandatory testing,” he said. “The government must also ensure there are sufficient sample bottles and manpower for tracing.”
Choi said he told officials the scheme would affect patient relations if a doctor was required to report a refusal to submit for screening.
“I am not sure how it could be implemented anyway,” he said. “Should I report to the government every day whom I have asked to take the test or who have not returned the bottle or who have symptoms? Whether it is the right time to carry out such a plan when cases are subsiding is questionable.”
The Food and Health Bureau said it was still in the process of sorting out the legal framework and details of mandatory testing, a spokesman said.
Monday’s sole local infection involved a 21-year-old woman, who was a close contact of a previous case at The Royal Garden hotel cluster.
Of the 14 imported cases, four were from India, two each from Russia, Britain and Turkey, and one arriving from each of the Philippines, United States, Spain and Kazakhstan.
The figure took the total number of confirmed infections in Hong Kong to 5,265, with 105 related deaths.
Global researchers have been looking for possible correlations between influenza and Covid-19. A recent study from Public Health England showed the risk of death doubled for those who caught the flu and coronavirus together, while another study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic, a non-profit academic medical centre in the United States, found receiving a flu vaccine had no influence on whether an individual would contract Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the Centre for Health Protection apologised for mistakenly allowing a 25-year-old man who had arrived from India on Thursday to be exempted from compulsory quarantine.
The consular employee based in Hong Kong tested negative for Covid-19 before departure and was allowed to go directly to his residence to continue medical surveillance after providing a deep-throat saliva specimen at the airport.
But he tested preliminary positive the same day and was transferred to a public hospital for isolation and treatment. His infection was confirmed the following day.
The centre was informed his diplomatic rank did not grant him exemption from compulsory quarantine at a hotel. The patient said he stayed at his residence alone after arriving and did not leave.
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