Officials have extended Hong Kong’s free testing programme by four days as they identified two more Covid-19 cases in the voluntary citywide exercise, insisting it was helping track down invisible coronavirus carriers and dismissing persistent doubts over its reach and efficacy.
A total of 953,000 residents had signed up online for the programme as of Friday night, and while officials have stopped short of setting a target, it looked unlikely that the final tally would be much over 1 million in a city of 7.5 million.
The city confirmed 12 infections on Friday, including the two newly screened cases and another two found on Thursday from the first batch of 128,000 people tested three days earlier at the launch of the programme. That took the total found under the voluntary scheme to eight.
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Officials defended the effectiveness of the mass exercise, amid lingering questions as to whether the extent of public participation could reach a critical mass in the remaining time, while the city responded to improving infection numbers by reopening more venues, including gyms, massage parlours, and clubhouses.
Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen announced that testing would continue at 122 of the 141 sample collection points until September 11, but 19 would close after September 7 because of their low sign-up rate.
He said the programme’s findings would help the city tackle any outbreaks this autumn and winter, as well as resume cross-border travel as early as possible.
“We will continue to closely monitor the operation of the centres, and based on local needs, further extend if there is still demand up to September 11,” Nip said. “But the whole programme will not last over 14 days.”
Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee also told Hongkongers not to dismiss the scheme because of its low rate of positive results.
“From a public health perspective, the cost effectiveness should not be calculated by how many samples we have done, or how many positive cases we got, how much we spent ... we should look at how much it means to our public health and if we can minimise social costs through the programme,” she said.
“It’s still very important even if we just find one case – actually if we find a few cases, it’s a good sign – if we don’t test, we won’t know if there are many or a few cases, but this can give us a better grasp and analysis for any [social-distancing] measures to be relaxed.”
But respiratory medicine expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu said the sign-up rate was still lower than expected, and it would “achieve little” if fewer than a million people, or less than one-seventh of the population eventually got tested.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a government adviser on its coronavirus response, said the programme would hit the 1 million mark, but the key was whether it represented a wide enough spectrum of society across all 18 districts.
“If the tested population is spread evenly across the city, then the data would provide more insight for the government into the actual epidemic situation and allow for a more targeted response such as screening of high-risk groups later,” he said.
One of the cases detected under the programme uncovered a previously hidden transmission link in the community, after one member of a symptomless couple who tested positive was found to have had contact with an earlier confirmed case.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, of the Centre for Health Protection, said the spouse who worked as a security guard in Tai Wai, had a conversation of over 10 minutes with an unmasked tenant in his block back in August. He was found to be preliminary positive for the virus after his wife’s infection was detected through the screening programme.
Chuang also reported a growing cluster of infections at the Metropark Hotel in Mong Kok, with another guest confirmed and one more testing preliminary positive on Friday, taking the number of cases there to four.
Everyone in the hotel would be tested, while about nine to 10 rooms would be evacuated. All cleaning staff serving the floor where the infections were identified would be quarantined.
The city’s infection tally now stands at 4,850, with 94 related deaths.
On Friday, some frontline doctors also raised concerns over the credibility of the screening system, saying some participants had been bused in and cited some as reporting that they had been tested a few times before.
Addressing concerns about double testing, Nip said the system was designed to provide a one-off test with simple verification and back-end monitoring to enable easy registration, but admitted it did not prevent residents from retaking the test, leading to possible double-counting in the participation rate.
“We do not encourage and there is no need for one who has been tested to do it again,” he said.
“There might be some people who, after having been tested, had high-risk exposure to places or people. They might feel uncomfortable and want to test again. We will not preclude this.”
As of Friday night, 284,800 specimens collected had been tested.
“For the first day or so, there were different procedures that needed to be smoothed out,” Chan said. “Initially, all the procedures were planned, but there were bound to be some teething problems, so now all these issues are already resolved.”
On the issue of vaccine procurement, Chan said the scientific committee had been trying its best to analyse data from different vaccine companies that were in the third phase of clinical trials.
They would work with the Department of Health and make recommendations to the government as soon as possible, Chan said, adding that once a vaccine was ready, the government would start the direct procurement process.
In a statement issued late on Friday, the government revealed it had formally submitted an “expression of interest” to join a global allocation scheme, led by the World Health Organisation and two other groups, to secure supplies for 20 per cent of the city’s population.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Just six Covid-19 cases in first batch of 128,000 Hongkongers tested in mass screening scheme – including four recovered patients
- Getting tested for Covid-19 in Hong Kong? Here’s what you need to know
- Coronavirus: concerns mount over handling of waste at Hong Kong’s mass testing centres, as 152,000 more screened
- Hong Kong relaxes social-distancing rules as city confirms lowest number of new Covid-19 cases in nearly two months