Doctors have expressed concern over staff working in at least one collection centre for Hong Kong’s mass Covid-19 testing effort receiving “non-medical use” gowns and residents being admitted who are coughing or report a sore throat, both symptoms of the disease.
A frontline doctor who had taken part in the programme told the Post on Friday that health workers had been given gowns with a label saying “non-medical use” and complained they offered little protection.
“It really puts the staff who collect the samples in a dangerous position,” said the doctor, who asked to remain anonymous. “The materials state they were manufactured in mainland China, and they are probably for industrial use. It’s really outrageous, since the government asked us to help out with the initiative, but didn’t even give us enough protection, not just against Covid-19, but [gowns] apparently not for medical use.”
A government spokesman said the gowns in question were not for surgical use and it had sought the advice of the Department of Health and was assured the materials met a liquid barrier standard.
In photos seen by the Post taken at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, one of the 141 venues converted into a sample collection point, the protective clothing came with a label reading “non-medical use”. A certificate written in simplified Chinese states the item was known as a “one-off protective gown” made on April 30 at a garment factory in Dongguan, in Guangdong province.
Dr Arisina Ma Chung-yee, the president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association, reviewed the photos and said the fabric resembled level 1 gowns used in the city’s public hospitals, which were not waterproof.
“Large splashes of water or projectiles such as vomit can pass through the layers, and level 1 gowns are only used in general wards treating ordinary patients,” Ma said. They were usually worn by nurses bringing food to patients or workers carrying out disinfection.
She noted that medical staff attending Covid-19 patients in isolation wards wore level 3 gowns, which had an extra layer of plastic that made them water-resistant and better able to prevent droplet contamination and virus transmission.
But Dr Alvin Chan Yee-shing, co-chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said fears were exaggerated.
Chan, who had helped collect respiratory samples at a testing centre over the past three days, said he had not come across such gowns at the venue, and believed the transmission risks were not that significant.
Many participants were found to be free of the disease and the swabs used to take samples only extended into the mouth and nose 1cm to 2cm, which minimised pain and the chance of sneezing or coughing.
Hong Kong launched the free and voluntary community-wide testing to identify invisible Covid-19 carriers on Tuesday, and has recruited more than 6,000 Hong Kong doctors, nurses and other health workers to collect samples.The central government is funding the programme, and testing firms with mainland links have been chosen to set up temporary laboratories to process up to 300,000 samples a day.
Apart from problems with protective equipment, the doctor serving at the exhibition centre also expressed alarm over people being admitted with respiratory symptoms, such as a cough or sore throat, while only residents with a fever were denied.
Asked about the issue at a press conference on Friday, Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, said: “People with symptoms are not encouraged to participate in this universal community testing programme because there are other routes and options for them. They can go to seek medical advice, or if they have mild symptoms, they can get bottles from general outpatient clinics, as we want to minimise the risk of cross transmission.”
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.