Record Hong Kong COVID infections strain hospitals, China pledges support

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Hong Kong (Reuters) – Hong Kong reported a record number of new daily COVID-19 infections on Friday and China said it would fully support the city with its “dynamic zero” coronavirus strategy, as local authorities struggle to control a deepening outbreak.

Hong Kong’s chief secretary John Lee, Health Secretary Sophia Chan and Security Chief Chris Tang will meet Chinese officials in neighbouring Shenzhen on Saturday to discuss support measures, the government said in a statement.

The meeting comes as Hong Kong’s pursuit of zero COVID infections has stretched hospital and quarantine facilities nearly to their limit, raising the near-term prospect of changes to admissions and isolation policies.

New daily infections rose to at least 1,325 on Friday, health authorities said.

“Our healthcare system is overloaded, it’s really beyond capacity,” said Chuang Shuk-kwan, a senior health official.

She said there were separately at least 1,500 preliminary positive cases.

Hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in the global financial hub are already at 90% occupancy, data from the city’s Hospital Authority showed, while isolation facilities were also nearing their maximum.

China’s central government is “highly concerned” about the safety and health of residents as well as the economy and people’s livelihoods, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), which comes under China’s State Council or cabinet, said in a statement.

It said it would help support Hong Kong’s fight against the disease.

“As long as Hong Kong asks, the motherland will surely respond … Hand in hand, we will surely be able to overcome the epidemic soon,” it said.

The Chinese government will help improve Hong Kong’s testing capability and set up another quarantine facility, the South China Morning Post reported, citing a Beijing-based source.

Beijing is also preparing to send thousands of medical and lab workers and millions of test kits to Hong Kong, with the daily coronavirus screening capacity to be increased from 100,000 tests to 300,000 tests.

Hong Kong has seen a 10-fold rise in cases since Feb. 1 and medical experts warn the city could see 28,000 daily infections by the end of March, with the unvaccinated elderly a particular worry.

Rising Fatalities

Five elderly people infected with COVID-19 died this week, after no COVID-linked fatalities since September last year. In total the city has recorded around 20,000 infections and 218 deaths, still far lower than other similar major cities.

Despite only a handful of COVID-19 patients being in critical condition, some hospitals are already full, mostly with people suffering little more than a sore throat.

Medical experts are also worried about an expected surge of infections that could dramatically increase severe infections, especially among the largely-unvaccinated elderly.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to test every day, including elderly and children, queuing for hours in tightly packed lines outside testing centres and raising the risk of infection.

Following mainland China, Hong Kong is trying to curb outbreaks as soon as possible, in contrast with many other places that are trying to “live with COVID”, relying on high vaccination rates to bring protection while easing restrictions.

The city’s stringent restrictions have turned it into one of the world’s most isolated major cities. With flights down 90%, and hardly anyone allowed to transit, Hong Kong on Friday extended a ban on flights from eight countries, including the United States and Britain, and added Nepal to the list.

The HKMAO said it was also coordinating with the Guangdong provincial government to ensure the supply of vegetables, fresh food and other necessities into Hong Kong.

The former British colony saw a run on vegetables this week after several cross-border truck drivers, who bring in goods from the mainland, tested positive for coronavirus.

China previously assisted the city in 2020 with a mass coronavirus testing scheme when it sent 600 people to operate lab facilities and tested nearly 2 million of the city’s 7.5 million residents.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said this week said she was deeply sorry and anxious for the long waits residents faced to get tested or enter isolation facilities.