Hong Kong confirmed another 48 coronavirus cases on Friday as an outbreak at a slaughterhouse run by Europe’s biggest meat-processing company sparked fears – quickly downplayed by experts – of food-borne transmission of Covid-19 via its products.
Danish Crown, Europe’s largest pork exporter, said last Saturday it would shut the facility near Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen for at least a week after nearly 150 employees tested positive for the coronavirus. On Thursday night, the company wrote on Facebook that exports from the plant would be suspended, and that all products currently sold in Hong Kong were made during or before June.
The announcement came as authorities in mainland China also stepped up monitoring of frozen food processing after traces of the coronavirus were detected in two cities on food and packaging imported from South America.
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But Chinese University respiratory medicine expert Professor David Hui Shu-cheong reassured the public again that the risk of contracting the disease by eating meat from those facilities was low.
“There shouldn’t be a problem as long as the meat is completely cooked through,” he said. “Consumers should use water and soap to wash the packaging before putting it in the fridge or using [the meat].”
The Centre for Food Safety, meanwhile, said on Friday that there was no evidence people could be infected with Covid-19 through food.
“The public should maintain personal, food and environmental hygiene at all times, including washing hands before and after handling raw and cooked food, and thoroughly cooking food,” it said.
Still, noting that Brazil, Europe and other places had experienced large-scale group outbreaks in meat processing plants, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung urged the food watchdog to regularly publish online data on how many imported foods and related sources had been sampled and tested to “help to put the public at ease”.
Xian, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi province, was the second city to detect the coronavirus on a sample of packaging on frozen shrimp from Ecuador on Wednesday night. Before that, Shenzhen in Guangdong province had found the coronavirus on the surface of frozen chicken wings imported from Brazil.
Hong Kong’s food safety authorities said the batch of chicken wings in question was not sold in the city, but that they would enhance sampling of frozen chicken meat from Brazil as a precautionary measure.
The centre also suspended the licence application for the import of poultry meat into Hong Kong from the affected plant in Brazil.
In Hong Kong, the latest batch of confirmed infections included 46 that were locally transmitted, 37 of which were linked to previous cases.
They included five connected to Kwai Chung Container Terminals, taking the total number of cases linked there to 25.
Meanwhile, another two Indonesian domestic workers connected to previous cases in maid dormitories were confirmed as infected. One case was tied to an infected helper who had also stayed at premises on Heung Wo Street in Tsuen Wan. The other involved a worker who stayed at a dormitory in Cheung Hing Mansion in Mong Kok, and got tested after recent cases there.
Friday was the 12th straight day that Hong Kong registered fewer than 100 new infections, but Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Centre for Health Protection (CHP), warned the public not to let their guard down.
“The number of cases has been decreasing slowly, so there may be day-to-day fluctuations of the actual numbers. So if we relax social-distancing measures … there may be a significant rebound because this virus is easily transmissible,” she said.
The city has so far recorded 4,360 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 67 related deaths.
The latest fatality was a 69-year-old man with underlying health conditions, who died on Friday afternoon at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan.
Around 30 people have also tested preliminary positive for Covid-19, pending confirmation.
Meanwhile, the Executive Council, the city leader’s de facto cabinet, is set to end its summer break one week early and resume regular meetings starting next Tuesday to handle anti-epidemic work, among other matters.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wrote on her official Facebook page on Thursday evening that Hong Kong had conducted more than 1 million Covid-19 tests so far.
Of those, 800,000 were performed by the Department of Health and the Hospital Authority, while the other 200,000 were conducted by private laboratories commissioned by the government to test high-risk groups, such as taxi drivers and staff at care homes.
Lam urged the public to take part in the one-time free, voluntary coronavirus testing programme that is expected to be launched this month for the city’s 7.5 million residents.
“Testing is an important part in the fight against the epidemic,” she wrote. “Because many patients with Covid-19 are asymptomatic, we must find these silent carriers to stop the spread of the virus in the community.”
A government source told the Post that City Garden Hotel in North Point had been transformed into a venue to host the mainland team coming to Hong Kong to study the city’s latest pandemic situation.
The hotel, which has stopped taking reservations, has put up frosted films on all of its doors and windows on the ground floor. All entrances have also been blocked off.
An employee standing guard outside told a Post reporter the hotel was “under renovation” and was therefore closed to the public.
Another establishment – the Alva Hotel by Royal, in Sha Tin – also confirmed on Friday that it would host some of the members from the mainland team assisting with the city’s virus tests. All have undergone virus testing and quarantine before arriving in Hong Kong, the hotel said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the office of the government’s chief information officer has begun a tender process to look for a developer to work on a “proof of concept” for an app that could be used for infection risk notifications by tracing the contacts of Covid-19 patients.
Chuang, of the CHP, said that as the app was still a concept at this stage, how it might help with the government’s contact tracing would depend on how it actually worked.
“I think the office would still have to do small-scale tests before further progress can be made. The app would not be used for tracing patients’ close contacts yet,” she said.
Separately, the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association, Hong Kong Medical Association, Frontline Doctors’ Union and medical sector lawmaker Dr Pierre Chan jointly urged the government to include Covid-19 as an occupational disease.
The designation concerns diseases contracted primarily through exposure at work, and entitles employees to compensation and protection under the law.
Infection rates for medical staff and care home workers were 24 and 16 times higher, respectively, than those for average people, the representatives said in a joint statement, citing a study published online in the medical journal The Lancet last month.
“Whether [Covid-19] is classified as an occupational disease is not a prerequisite for protection, but it can help frontline health care workers avoid lengthy investigations after being infected at work,” they said. “It would [also] boost the morale of medical staff and society.”
Additional reporting by Christy Leung and Elizabeth Cheung
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