Hong Kong third wave: infection of three health workers at Tuen Mun Eye Centre sparks Covid-19 cluster fears as city marks grim milestone

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Three health workers in contact with hundreds of Hongkongers were among 64 new coronavirus cases confirmed on Saturday, sparking fears of a major outbreak at an eye clinic as the number of Covid-19 infections overtook the city’s tally for the Sars epidemic.

Sixty cases were locally transmitted including a woman who shared the same ward as three people with Covid-19 at a hospital that recorded the city’s 12th coronavirus-related death on Saturday.

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Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, an infectious disease expert from the University of Hong Kong, said all three of the infected clerks at Tuen Mun Eye Centre were on the front line serving the public. “Each clerk may have interacted with 200 different patients a day,” he said.

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With more than 60 people who tested preliminary positive awaiting confirmation, the city’s Covid-19 total climbed to 1,777 – above the 1,755 infections it recorded 17 years ago during the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic.

Continuing the alarming third wave trend, with many untraceable cases, Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, told a press briefing that 35 of Saturday’s new local infections were of unknown origin.

In the Tuen Mun clinic, a clerk working in one of its ground-floor offices on Friday tested positive for the coronavirus before two of her colleagues, based on the same level, were also confirmed as infected.

Yuen, who is among those probing the infections at the centre, said the administration staff were responsible for handling money, identity cards and other documents. He suggested a patient who was a hidden carrier might have infected a clerk through indirect contact.

The expert said the staff could have caught the coronavirus by touching their eyes or eating without washing their hands first, while there was also the possibility of cross infection through sharing kitchen facilities in the workplace.

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“At this stage, we won’t rule out any possibilities. Maybe later, there will be more cases emerging,” he said.

Authorities were tracing the trio’s close contacts and by Saturday night, 31 out of the 33 categorised as such at their place of work had tested negative, with two results pending. No patients at the eye centre have been listed as close contacts.

Hong Kong has recorded another 64 coronavirus infections, the vast majority of which were locally transmitted. Photo: Felix Wong
Hong Kong has recorded another 64 coronavirus infections, the vast majority of which were locally transmitted. Photo: Felix Wong

Yuen said there was a kidney dialysis centre based in the same building and even though the chances of transmission to that area were slim, the authorities would nonetheless test 86 patients and 14 workers there, given those requiring the treatment had weak immunity.

The eye centre is closed over the weekend after thorough disinfection works on Friday night and operations are suspended from Monday.

With health authorities investigating, Yuen suggested all medical records in question be sterilised and isolated for 10 days.

The city’s latest Covid-19 fatality was a 94-year-old man with a history of chronic illness who was confirmed infected on July 9, when he was admitted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital with symptoms of fever and cough. He died on Saturday morning.

In the same hospital, another patient was officially recorded as infected after sharing a ward with three others who have the virus. The 76-year-old woman with underlying illness was admitted to the hospital on June 30.

Separately, two men aged 39 and 43 who tested positive were linked to a 45-year-old man earlier confirmed as infected and may have caught coronavirus playing table tennis together in San Po Kong in Wong Tai Sin district.

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, the HKU microbiologist, inspected the Tuen Mun Eye Centre on Saturday. Photo: Dickson Lee
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, the HKU microbiologist, inspected the Tuen Mun Eye Centre on Saturday. Photo: Dickson Lee

Noting that most of the recent cases involved social gatherings, Chuang appealed to the public to stay home as much as possible, avoid gatherings and to opt for takeaways if they were unable to cook at home.

“Tracing close contacts is difficult and we can’t rely solely on this method to contain Covid-19. We need everyone to pause for a while, try to reduce social activities and stop going out as much as possible … in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” she said.

“If people don’t change their habits we won’t have enough space to quarantine close contacts even if we have excess capacity.”

Chuang added most Covid-19 patients displayed symptoms such as runny nose and coughing and called on asymptomatic people to stay at home and refrain from “taking away” tests from those feeling unwell.

Hospital Authority chief executive Dr Tony Ko Pat-sing said on a radio show on Saturday that the AsiaWorld-Expo, an exhibition venue close to Hong Kong International Airport, could be another community option for handling stable Covid-19 patients.

He also said that Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village in Chai Wan, a quarantine centre currently used for close contacts of confirmed cases and people returning from high-risk areas, could start taking in those less serious cases within one to two weeks at the earliest.

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Meanwhile, starting from July 25, travellers from high-risk countries such as India and Pakistan would need to provide a negative Covid-19 test result before boarding flights to Hong Kong. They would also have to show proof of a hotel room reservation for at least 14 days from the date of arrival.

HKU medical school dean Professor Gabriel Leung said on another radio programme on Saturday that the government must respond quickly to the evolving situation.

“The government should procure vaccines and other disease prevention items as soon as possible. Don’t disappoint Hongkongers,” he said.

Separately, 12 wet markets under the banner of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department in Kowloon would close an hour earlier on a designated day between Sunday and Tuesday for deep cleaning.

Also on Saturday, dominant free-to-air broadcaster TVB said it had learned that some people who had worked in its headquarters in Tseung Kwan O, or had contact with staff, were confirmed as infected.

No TVB employees had tested positive so far, the company said on Saturday, adding it had arranged testing for those affected and their contacts.

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