Hong Kong fourth wave: free Covid-19 tests for domestic helpers in bid to contain emerging coronavirus outbreak among migrant workers

Elizabeth Cheung
·8-min read

Free Covid-19 tests will be offered to Hong Kong’s 390,000 foreign domestic helpers in a bid to contain an emerging outbreak among migrant workers that could complicate pandemic control.

Public health experts urged the government to regulate boarding houses for migrant workers, as the city confirmed another 82 infections on Wednesday, and residents of more public estates were placed under mandatory testing and quarantine orders.

A partial evacuation was also ordered for a housing block in Wong Tai Sin after an evening inspection by officials and health experts failed to conclude structural reasons were to blame for the virus spreading there.

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Infectious disease expert Professor Yuen Kwok-yung (in blue) inspects Ming Lai House in Choi Wan Estate. Photo: Edmond So
Infectious disease expert Professor Yuen Kwok-yung (in blue) inspects Ming Lai House in Choi Wan Estate. Photo: Edmond So

Pro-government activist Leticia Lee See-yin, who died suddenly on Wednesday, was believed to be among the latest Covid-19 victims. Sources said Lee, 56, tested preliminary-positive after being certified dead on arrival in hospital.

Coronavirus tests for domestic workers will be available for booking at the city’s 18 community testing centres from Thursday, with the service to start the following day until late January.

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“As there have been more infections involving domestic workers, to reduce the risks of transmission in the community, the government will provide one-off free virus testing for all of them,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Centre for Health Protection.

Tests at the centres, which collect specimens via nasal and throat swabbing, cost HK$240 (US$30) for people not among specific groups targeted by the government.

Domestic helpers currently have access to free Covid-19 tests by collecting deep-throat saliva specimen bottles from government clinics, post offices and major MTR stations.

The latest move followed the emergence of a cluster involving helpers at a Tai Po boarding house. Twelve cases are linked to the outbreak, among them an employer and her family members, including a six-month-old baby.

Thirty-three people, including helpers and their employers, were identified as close contacts and sent to quarantine.

Of Wednesday’s 82 confirmed cases, 79 were locally transmitted, including 35 which were not traceable, a small increase from 30 recorded a day earlier. Three infections were imported.

About 80 preliminary-positive cases were also logged and awaited confirmation.

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All residents of Lung San House at Lung Poon Court, a housing estate in Diamond Hill, would have to undergo mandatory testing as one more infection was reported. So far four residents from four flats have been infected.

Some residents living on the 32nd floor of Ming Yan Lau at Jat Min Chuen, an estate in Sha Tin, would be sent to quarantine as health officials suspected there was transmission after infections were reported in four flats.

“There were three cases living on the same side of the lift lobby. We believe residents living in flats on that side might have been exposed to some previous environmental contamination or a super-spreader,” Chuang said.

Residents in flats numbered 1 to 12, 14 and 16 on the floor concerned would be sent for quarantine. All residents of the block would also be required to get tested.

Signs of vertical transmission were also identified in Ming Lai House at Choi Wan Estate in Wong Tai Sin, where a mandatory testing order for residents had already been issued.

“There is a tendency of vertical [transmission] but we are not very certain,” Chuang said.

She said there were infections in six flats, including three numbered 33 and two numbered 34.

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Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, an infectious disease expert from the University of Hong Kong, revealed on Wednesday evening, after inspecting Ming Lai House with officials, that residents in 42 flats numbered 33 and 34 on all floors would have to be moved to a quarantine site.

He said those flats shared sewage and venting pipes in the 42-year-old block. An inability to pinpoint a leak in the pipes, and the fact that three different residents told them their toilets would start to smell when taps were turned on upstairs added to the experts’ worries.

In the past week, drainage design or other construction issues were linked to transmission at two virus-hit residential blocks, Richland Gardens in Kowloon Bay and Kwai Tung House at Tung Tau Estate in Wong Tai Sin.

Ming Lai House was inspected on Wednesday evening. Photo: Edmond So
Ming Lai House was inspected on Wednesday evening. Photo: Edmond So

Chuang said three of the 29 environmental samples collected at Kwai Tung House had traces of virus. Those samples were found on a bathroom drain pipe and some exhaust fans.

The official tally of Covid-19 infections is 7,803 confirmed cases, with 123 related deaths.

Infectious disease expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu said the latest testing arrangement could help prevent the virus spreading among domestic workers, but failed to specifically target those in boarding houses.

“The strategy can’t prevent transmission within boarding houses,” Leung said.

But Leung, who earlier urged the government to bring forward legislation to cover helper dormitories, noted that imposing mandatory testing on all boarding houses would be difficult as some of the unlicensed ones would be hard to identify.

As well as providing lodgings for workers between contracts, some helpers visited the boarding house for a short while at weekends and others brought friends there, the authorities said.

Currently, there is no law regulating boarding houses for helpers. But employers cannot allow their helpers to stay overnight at these facilities.

Dr. Leung Chi-chiu. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Dr. Leung Chi-chiu. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

An estimated 1,500 licensed and unlicensed domestic helper boarding houses operate across the city, according to Cheung Kit-man, chairman of the Hong Kong Employment Agencies Association.

The Philippine and Indonesian consulates issue licences to employment agencies to provide free accommodation for helpers seeking jobs.

About 400 or so of these premises typically provide free housing for two weeks for those between jobs. Such venues must meet the bare minimum of providing a bed space, shower facilities and a shared refrigerator for boarders.

However, employment agencies without the consulate licences have also been operating boarding houses for profit. Such places charge maids around HK$70 to HK$150 per day for a bed and use of a shared bathroom. These facilities should be subject to regulations under the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance, Cheung said.

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“It’s incredibly difficult to track which employment agencies run unlicensed boarding houses because there is not an official list of these locations,” Cheung said.

“Many local families have also chosen to terminate the contract of their domestic helper as they can no longer afford one under the poor economic conditions right now. That’s why you can expect a lot of laid-off domestic helpers staying in these dorms.”

However, the Labour Department clarified that the Employment Ordinance does not have any provisions requiring agencies to apply for a licence to operate a boarding facility.

The department said the government had been providing Covid-19 testing services for domestic helpers in boarding facilities since August. It has also reminded workers to refrain from gathering in boarding facilities during their days off.

An eatery displays QR codes for the “Leave Home Safe” app. Photo: Nora Tam
An eatery displays QR codes for the “Leave Home Safe” app. Photo: Nora Tam

Shiela Bonifacio, chairwoman of migrant rights group Gabriela Hong Kong, and Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers’ Association, both agreed the free tests for helpers were a positive sign the government was starting to understand the need to include migrant workers in safety measures for the pandemic.

“My domestic helper actually got tested in June, but if she wishes to get tested again through this upcoming scheme, I will not stop her and I encourage all employers to do the same,” Yung said.

Meanwhile, five officers from Pat Heung Police Station sent to Leticia Lee’s village house and six of their colleagues would work from home and receive coronavirus tests as a precaution. The five officers had been wearing masks and protective gear, a police spokesman said. The station was also disinfected.

Separately, the “Leave Home Safe” contact-tracing app had been downloaded more than 370,000 times, as of Tuesday, with 64,000 public and private venues joining the scheme, Secretary for Innovation and Technology Alfred Sit Wing-hang revealed on Wednesday.

The government launched the app last month, allowing users to scan a QR code at different locations to voluntarily log their movements in support of the city’s fight against the virus.

The app will also notify users if a person confirmed as infected has recently visited those places.

Additional reporting by Victor Ting and Gigi Choy

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