Officials call for restrained festivities over Lunar New Year as Hong Kong logs 21 new coronavirus cases

Zoe Low
·7-min read

Residents preparing to mark the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong should keep their family celebrations brief, avoid sharing meals and steer clear of crowds or else risk a resurgence of the coronavirus, health authorities have warned.

The daily caseload has been steadily falling over the past two weeks, with just 21 new infections confirmed on Thursday. But officials stressed the extended public holiday would be a test of the public’s willingness to keep following preventive measures, and urged people to use the government’s risk-exposure app when visiting public places, calling privacy fears unfounded.

Tourism industry figures and delegates to the national legislature also called on authorities to allow residents to cross the border into mainland China to receive Covid-19 jabs already being distributed.

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On the eve of the Lunar New Year, the health minister urged the millions of people making celebration plans to exercise restraint.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan has warned of a potential rebound in Covid-19 cases after the holidays. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan has warned of a potential rebound in Covid-19 cases after the holidays. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“We are actually quite worried, because in our past experience, there is a risk of a rebound in infections after long holidays,” said Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, secretary for food and health. “So we really need everybody to work together, and we will continue to monitor the overall situation.”

Seven of the latest cases were untraceable, while four were imported, involving one arrival each from India and Albania, and two from the Philippines. About a dozen people tested preliminary-positive.

The city’s infection tally stands at 10,731, while the number of related fatalities rose to 191 after a 75-year-old woman died at the Caritas Medical Centre and a postmortem test on the body of an 84-year-old man who died on Thursday came back positive.

Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, echoed the minister’s calls for the public to remain vigilant and keep family gatherings small.

“If you are visiting an elderly relative or somebody who is rather frail, you should consider if you have symptoms whether they will be affected,” she said. “Siblings may gather … reconsider if you want to have a big crowd. Shorten the visit as much as possible. Just exchange greetings.

“What about sharing meals? These might be times where you might need to take off your mask and therefore it entails high-risk and you don’t want to pass on the virus to somebody who is old and frail.”

Two of the latest infected people had visited traditional holiday flower markets, Chuang said, but authorities did not suspect they contracted the virus there, given they were linked to previously known cases.

The pair spent time at the markets at Yuen Wo Playground in Sha Tin on February 6, and Kwun Tong Recreation Ground in Kwun Tong on February 7.

Authorities announced on Wednesday they intended to broadly relax social-distancing rules after the holiday, provided the daily caseload remained stable.

Restaurants could offer dine-in service for four hours longer until 10pm and seat four people per table, up from two, while gyms, cinemas and other premises could reopen. But the easing will come with new preventive measures for venue operators.

They must regularly test employees and require patrons to scan the government’s “Leave Home Safe” risk-exposure app or leave their personal details.

According to Chuang, fewer than 20 infected people had used the app since its launch on November 16.

“For confirmed cases [using the app], their itineraries will be uploaded to us, and we shall calculate the infectious period, and their premises visited during the period will be [updated] on the app,” she said.

“Those who were at the same places during the infectious period will receive an alert, telling them that they have been in the same space with a confirmed case.”

The app also provided the CHP with regularly updated information it used to understand the details of confirmed cases, Chuang added. Users do not need to provide any name or personal details to receive notifications.

“I understand there are some concerns over the app, but even when you book tables at restaurants, you leave your personal details, and after you scan the code, the app does not display any of your information,” she said.

Also among the latest infections were two cases linked to Oi Wo House at Tai Wo Estate in Tai Po, where about 30 people on the 14th floor were sent into isolation on Wednesday following an outbreak. A resident of the building, and a close contact of an earlier case, were confirmed as having the virus.

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Residents of eight buildings must undergo testing by Monday after cases were uncovered, while all 14 environmental samples taken from Wai Lee Building in Quarry Bay tested negative after officials suspected vertical transmission was contributing to the outbreak of cases, which has risen to nine over the past 14 days.

Meanwhile, representatives from the tourism sector and local delegates to the National People’s Congress said they had urged the central and Hong Kong government to allow Hongkongers to take day trips to the mainland to receive inoculations, without the need to undergo quarantine.

Residents could travel in strictly contained groups to avoid contagion risks, but the backers were unable to say how many jabs they planned to ask Beijing to provide under the scheme.

“Why haven’t Hongkongers been able to get vaccinated when people from some other places can get vaccines produced by mainland China?” said Freddy Yip Hing-ning, the president of the Hong Kong Travel Agent Owners Association.

“If some Hong Kong residents are willing to go to the mainland to get jabs, it might provide a further incentive for relaxing travel restrictions between Hong Kong and the mainland … we are very, very anxious, and there is a need to allow [travelling across the border] as soon as possible.”

A spokesman from the Food and Health Bureau told the Post “a host of issues” had to be considered first, including the availability of vaccines, medical liability, vaccination records, post-inoculation medical surveillance and quarantine arrangements. It would “take some time” to put such a programme in place, he added.

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Hong Kong expects its own first batch of shots, 1 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, by late February. An official scientific committee on vaccine-preventable diseases said in a report published on Thursday the vaccine did not point towards “any unexpected or untoward increase in mortality in frail elderly”.

The review was triggered by the deaths of multiple people overseas after they received the vaccination, although investigations later found underlying diseases were to blame. In Norway, 30 out of 70,000 people inoculated died, while in Germany 21 out of more than 1 million people who received the injection died.

A staff member checks tags on prefilled syringes of inactivated Covid-19 vaccine at packing line of Sinovac Life Sciences Co., Ltd. in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua
A staff member checks tags on prefilled syringes of inactivated Covid-19 vaccine at packing line of Sinovac Life Sciences Co., Ltd. in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

But the committee stressed doctors would need to weigh the benefits and risks of the shots for those in extreme age groups or who were severely frail.

In the case of the deceased man who was later revealed as infected, officials said he was found unconscious at home on Monday morning and sent to Queen Elizabeth Hospital but died that afternoon.

His domestic helper later tested preliminary-positive, which prompted health staff to alert the Kwai Chung Public Mortuary. It was confirmed on Thursday that the man had been carrying the coronavirus.

Dr Lau Ka-hin, the Hospital Authority’s chief manager for quality and standards, said the man did not have a fever nor a history of respiratory symptoms, so doctors did not think to carry out a screening. Lau reminded staff to be more thorough in examining recently deceased patients and carry out Covid-19 tests if necessary.

Building issued with mandatory testing orders:

1. Ying May Building at 66-70 Prince Edward Road West

2. Block 3 Ka Lim Lau at Ka Wai Chuen in Hung Hom

3. Shek Yi House at Shek Lei (II) Estate in Sha Tin

4. Foo Wo House at Wo Che Estate in Sha Tin

5. Hin Ming Court in Tseung Kwan O

6. Fu Tin Building at Fu Tor Loy Sun Chuen in Tai Kok Tsui

7. Lai Wo House at Tai Wo Estate in Tai Wo

8. 147-151A Fuk Wa Street in Sham Shui Po

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