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Hong Kong authorities warn of possible “exponential growth” in coronavirus cases

65 new patients have been diagnosed since Sunday, including 31 locally transmitted cases in a so-called “third wave” of the pandemic in the global financial center.

Taxi drivers, restaurant workers, medical clinic workers and residents of a nursing home – some of the most susceptible to the virus and likely to spread it – have been diagnosed.

“It is possible that there will be a major outbreak,” said Dr. Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable diseases department of the Hong Kong Center for Health Protection (CHP), on Wednesday. “There could be a sudden exponential growth in cases.”

Since the virus spread worldwide earlier this year, only 1

,324 coronavirus cases and seven virus-related deaths have been recorded in Hong Kong.

The city’s success in containing Covid-19 has been attributed to the government’s vigilant quarantine for overseas arrivals, efficient contact tracking, and residents’ willingness to practice good hygiene, wear masks, and practice social distancing.

While The new number of cases and the total number of people diagnosed with Covid-19 is very small compared to countries where the pandemic is widespread, such as the United States and Brazil. Experts say the recent surge in cases shows that even with the most stringent of anti-epidemics, the virus is still a threat.

“This virus will find every crack in your armor,” said Dr. Sarah Borwein, a Hong Kong-based doctor with experience in infectious diseases and epidemiology. “We saw this in Beijing, Singapore, South Korea and now in Israel, Australia and elsewhere.”

Control measures had worked

Prior to Sunday, Hong Kong had been without cases of local infection with the virus for three weeks, with the exception of a few cases that were directly related to imported cases, e.g. B. People who lived in the same house.

City life had largely returned to normal, although the virus had devastated other parts of the world. Bars and restaurants have been open for weeks, albeit with limited capacity, and gatherings of up to 50 people have been allowed since June 19.

Restrictions still apply to incoming travelers. Almost all newcomers have to undergo a health screening and a saliva test in a state facility of the AsiaWorld-Expo, a huge convention center near the airport.

Those who test negative must be in quarantine for 14 days – either in a government facility or at home with a watchband – and periodically check for signs of the virus and report the results back to the appropriate authorities. Positive cases are usually forwarded to local hospitals and their close contacts are sent to isolation centers.

Up to this week, health officials have been able to identify and isolate the relatively small number of local cases. However, the recent surge in local transmission has led to warnings of a community outbreak.

“The epidemic situation in Hong Kong has changed rapidly since last weekend and the situation has become very critical,” said Wong Ka-hing, head of the Center for Health Protection (CHP) on Tuesday.

Officials here said the government is now seriously considering bringing back measures that were lifted in late June as the cases waned, such as limiting the number of people allowed to gather in public, closing bars, and requiring restaurants, to further reduce capacity.

Of the new cases, a number has been linked to a 59-year-old man who works in two restaurants in the city, including one that is popular with taxi drivers. By Wednesday, at least four drivers had been infected by the restaurant employee, although it is not known how he got the virus. One case concerned a resident of an old people’s home who asked the authorities to send residents and employees identified as close contacts to quarantine facilities.

After it was confirmed that a pilot was infected with the virus at the weekend, the authorities said quickly moved to introduce mandatory tests for crew members arriving on airplanes and ships. However, none of the new cases were associated with the infected pilot.

As of Wednesday, every flight crew arriving in the city has to put saliva samples in their throats by spitting into a cup. So far they have only been asked to fill out a health declaration, wear masks in public and carry out temperature tests twice a day. They are still exempt from the 14-day quarantine period imposed on all international passengers arriving in the city, as this would likely paralyze these industries and make short-term travel to the city virtually impossible.

Hong Kong’s Ministry of Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan said the government is also considering using hotels to quarantine foreign housekeepers arriving in the city. Several helpers who have flown to Hong Kong from the Philippines and Indonesia and have confirmed more than 50,000 and 68,000 cases, respectively, have tested positive in the past two weeks, Chan said.

According to government statistics, nearly 400,000 household helpers lived in Hong Kong last year. Legally, they have to live with their employer, but Chan says the Hong Kong homes may be too small to have an “effective quarantine.”

A photo taken through thick glass shows passengers (center) wearing coronavirus face masks as a precaution while receiving quarantine wristbands at Hong Kong International Airport on March 19.

Live with the virus

Experts say the sudden surge in new cases in Hong Kong shows how difficult it is to control the corona virus.

“It’s been pretty quiet here for the past three months,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, director of the School of Public Health at Hong Kong University. “We were in a relatively safe bubble and moved to a more normal level of activity. And I think in this situation you can start to hope, oh, maybe it’s over and so on, but these cases remind us that Covid as contagious as ever. “

Fukuda and others say that the Hong Kong government, like almost every agency around the world, is trying to “do a tough balancing act.”

So far, the government has done a good job of minimizing the number of infections and preventing the outbreak of local clusters. But public health officials were confident about the possibility of new outbreaks in the future. They pursued a policy of “suppression and removal”: take measures to suppress viruses when local cases increase and remove them when the number decreases.

However, complete elimination of the risk may be impossible, particularly due to Hong Kong’s dependence on the outside world. Travel restrictions may have helped slow the spread of the coronavirus. It is not possible to impose a general ban on people entering and leaving an international financial and commercial capital such as Hong Kong.

“We can’t be an island we all keep away from,” said Dr. John Nicholls, clinical professor of pathology at Hong Kong University.

“We need people to bring equipment and groceries. We’re not completely self-sufficient,” said Nicholls. “We just have to recognize that we have to live with this virus because I think it is much longer than originally thought.”

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