Wuhan ‘pneumonia’: Hong Kong takes tougher precautions with more powers to investigate suspected cases

Natalie Wong

Hong Kong is taking tougher precautions against a mysterious, pneumonia-like virus in central China, laying the legal groundwork to put patients under quarantine if necessary and making it mandatory for doctors to notify the authorities of any suspected cases in the city.

Nine more travellers who returned from Wuhan with symptoms of either fever and respiratory infection or pneumonia were placed in hospital isolation wards on Tuesday, taking the total to 30 – 13 of whom have already been discharged after treatment – since December 31, 2019.

Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, said that travellers entering the city from Wuhan had been put through extra temperature screenings since Monday night. This came soon after the Food and Health Bureau said it expected to list the unidentified virus as a notifiable disease by the end of the week, empowering the authorities to enforce quarantine measures.

The Department of Health then announced on Tuesday afternoon that it would gazette a bill to amend the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance on Wednesday, including “severe respiratory disease associated with a novel infectious agent” as a statutory notifiable infectious disease with immediate effect.

“Recently some patients have been leaving hospitals before completing medical check-ups,” Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said. “The amendment of the law this time would be important for Hong Kong in preventing the spread of a new disease.”

But Dr Henry Yeung Chiu-fat, president of the Hong Kong Doctors Union, warned of difficulties in meeting the notification requirement stipulated in the amended ordinance.

“The definition is wide and vague. I don’t think we have the right to detain a patient at our clinic for too long just because they may have been to Wuhan and come down with a slight cold,” Yeung said.

Hong Kong set to add mystery ‘pneumonia’ to list of notifiable diseases

He was concerned it could lead to Hong Kong over-reporting cases, while mainland China could be under-reporting them.

“If that happens, soon the number of suspected cases in Hong Kong will be higher than the mainland. I am very worried this could be a serious thing; the mainland should release information to us so we know what is going on,” he said.

At a media briefing earlier in the morning, the chief executive said the legal amendment would be made through a negative vetting process, meaning the law would take effect before it could be formally approved by the Legislative Council, which would scrutinise it later.

A doctor in full protective gear at the Wuhan Medical Treatment Centre in Wuhan, which has recorded dozens of cases of unexplained pneumonia-like symptoms. Photo: Simon Song

Lam said the aim was to strengthen Hong Kong’s surveillance capability and keep a lid on the pneumonia-like illness, which has yet to be identified.

“We will need more solid legal grounds to implement other prevention and control actions. The authorities will also have greater power to isolate and quarantine patients involved,” she said.

Centre for Health Protection (CHP) controller Dr Wong Ka-hing said anyone suspected to be infected with a notifiable disease who refused to undergo investigation or treatment would be liable to a fine of up to HK$5,000 (US$640) and imprisonment of six months.

Wuhan ‘pneumonia’ not Sars, but virus unidentified as more hospitalised

Lam also revealed that, as a new measure targeting travellers from Wuhan, health officials had checked the body temperatures of all passengers on two trains that had passed through the mainland city and arrived in Hong Kong since Monday night.

The medical checks were conducted with handheld infrared mobile devices once the passengers arrived at the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminus. That was in addition to the regular temperature screening devices already installed for all passengers.

A special lane has been set up at West Kowloon high-speed railway station for travellers from Wuhan. Photo: May Tse

Hong Kong authorities had earlier designated a separate lane for travellers from Wuhan at the rail terminus after health officials triggered a “serious” response level on Saturday over the outbreak. But the lane was rarely used by passengers.

All nine new patients admitted between noon on Monday and Tuesday at midday – four children aged six to 10, two teenagers, and three adults aged between 32 and 49 – remain in a stable condition.

Dr Chung Kin-lai, the Hospital Authority’s quality and safety director, said up to 70 per cent of 480 isolation beds in public hospitals were currently occupied. If needed, the number could be raised to 1,400 in 72 hours.

The Hong Kong Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service also announced that people who had been to Wuhan should defer any plan to donate blood for 14 days after leaving the mainland city.

Authorities in Wuhan, in Hubei province, have reported 59 cases so far, with no fatalities.

Low-key checks for Hong Kong rail passengers despite ‘serious’ outbreak

Mainland authorities, who are in the process of identifying the virus, suspect the source is a seafood market that also sells game meat. They have already ruled out highly contagious viruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and bird flu.

The city’s largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, reflected local concerns to Beijing’s liaison office on Tuesday morning.

After meeting deputy director He Jing, DAB chairwoman Starry Lee Wai-king said the official had promised to convey their request to Wuhan health authorities for daily updates on the number of cases and for investigation results to be sent to the Hong Kong government.

Additional reporting by Zoe Low

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