Hong Kong health officials are racing to contain a growing coronavirus outbreak in four old tenement blocks amid infection fears and calls by an expert to remove faulty pipes, while the city on Wednesday confirmed 42 new Covid-19 cases.
Mandatory testing for residents and recent visitors at the buildings on Reclamation Street in Jordan was ongoing. Four more infections in two homes were also recorded, taking the number of cases to 25 in 13 flats.
More than 20 residents were identified as close contacts and sent to quarantine on Wednesday.
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A Post visit to the virus hotspot found flats were carved up into as many as five cramped subdivided units, with narrow staircases and exits in the buildings. Loud drips were also heard coming from leaky sewage pipes.
Fearful tenants complained of plumbing and ventilation problems, pleading for help from the government to move to a temporary safe space.
“The situation is just too congested … the plumbing doesn’t work sometimes and the air is terrible here,” said a tenant who asked to be referred to as Ali.
A resurgence of the city’s fourth coronavirus wave lifted the daily case tally from 25 a week ago to 60 on Tuesday. Wednesday’s infections were all locally transmitted, including 11 that were untraceable, pushing the confirmed case total to 9,385. More than 20 people tested preliminary-positive for the virus.
Another elderly Covid-19 patient also died on Wednesday, taking the figure for related fatalities to 161.
Authorities on Tuesday ordered residents and recent visitors to the four interconnected tenement buildings at 20, 22, 24 and 26 Reclamation Street to undergo mandatory Covid-19 screenings after the outbreak there.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s (CHP) communicable disease branch, had said the infections at the tenements were linked to several other large clusters in the city, such as construction sites at the Tseung Kwan O-Lam Tin tunnel, Central Kowloon Route and the airport’s third runway project.
She also raised the alarm over the risk of transmissions in the old buildings, pointing to the prevalence of subdivided flats and difficulties in getting the mandatory testing message out to a large number of tenants from ethnic-minority backgrounds.
On Wednesday, the tunnel cluster continued to grow, with four more patients linked to it, taking the total to 38. Two more infections were tied to the Central Kowloon Route construction project, taking the total to 20.
Addressing a question from a lawmaker in the Legislative Council on Wednesday, Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee revealed the government was looking at an expert’s earlier proposal on cutting shops’ business hours to further curb the virus spread.
At the Reclamation Street tenements, Ali, a construction worker, said the hygiene conditions were poor, and expressed worries over the health implications for his young family.
Shrestha Anup, 30, who works at Siddhababa General Store at block No 22, was anxious he might have to close down the family business, at least temporarily, until the virus scare was over.
The store was opened 10 years ago to accommodate the then growing population of Indians, Nepalis and other migrant workers in the area.
“Obviously, this will have a large impact on our financial situation, as my family’s sole income comes from this store,” Anup said.
University student Lam Nga-fung, 20, has lived at 24 Reclamation Street for four years. Although the building had so far not had any confirmed cases, she wanted the government to give residents more help in providing temporary accommodation while the site remained a virus hotspot.
“My family cannot move that easily out of the building, as rates for hotels are not cheap and we can’t afford to just rent out another place,” she said.
“I wish the government would do more to help us, the surrounding unaffected residents, to move out.”
She also believed there could be structural issues with the plumbing and sewage system.
“Perhaps that will lead to easier transmission of the virus,” Lam said.
Chuang from CHP, however, ruled out a full evacuation of residents there, adding the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department would carry out disinfection of the site, while the Buildings Department would check pipes in private buildings that had infected residents.
But a veteran surveyor who inspected the tenement buildings on Tuesday said he believed systemic drainage problems remained, urging landlords and the authorities to remove illegal works there and restore the pipes to their original design.
Vincent Ho Kui-yip, a former president of the Institute of Surveyors, told the Post that pipes that discharged waste water from kitchen sinks were connected to soil pipes that disposed of faeces from toilets in the buildings, allowing both the smell and virus particles to travel to other flats via the kitchen sinks.
Ho said he had observed several branch pipes outside the building, which indicated many subdivided washrooms had been built, exacerbating the problem.
Ho said he believed the Buildings Department had the power and should issue a reinstatement order to remove unauthorised structures there, as well as separate the two types of pipes in the buildings or install a U-trap that would block the exchange of air particles through the pipes.
“These tenement buildings in Jordan represent only the tip of the iceberg,” Ho said. “There are many old buildings that share the same drainage problems.”
He said the incident also placed the spotlight on cramped subdivided flats, which were a hotbed for virus transmission.
Meanwhile, Tin Ma Court’s Chun Wai House in Wong Tai Sin became the latest building put under a mandatory testing order, as four residents in two unrelated flats were confirmed infected.
Separately, the online booking system for the Return2hk Scheme has from Thursday opened 24 hours a day for members of the public to apply for available quotas. Eligible people can apply for quotas for the January 14-24 period. Thereafter, the system would make available the quotas for the seven-day period of the following week for booking every Wednesday at midnight, the government said.
The quarantine-free travel scheme allows Hongkongers in Macau or Guangdong province to return to the city if they test negative for Covid-19 72 hours before crossing the border.
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