Hong Kong’s COVID fight intensifies as cases surge 60-fold

HONG KONG, Feb 17 (Reuters) – The battle against the coronavirus in Hong Kong intensified on Thursday as authorities reported that new cases had risen 60-fold so far this month and media reported that testing would become mandatory for everyone in the global financial center from March.

Hospitals are overwhelmed with some patients, including the elderly, left lying on beds outside in cold and sometimes rainy weather, in shocking scenes that have prompted an apology from authorities in the Chinese-ruled city .

Schools, gymnasiums, cinemas and most public places are closed. Many office workers are working from home. But many residents are weary of the harsh restrictions imposed to protect them from the pandemic, even as most other major cities around the world adjust to life with the virus.

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Health authorities reported a record 6,116 confirmed cases on Thursday, up from 4,285 the day before, with another 6,300 preliminary positive cases. This brings the total since January to more than 16,600. They reported 24 new deaths.

The rise in cases is the biggest test yet of the city’s “dynamic zero-COVID” policy, but leader Carrie Lam said this week the city “can’t surrender to the virus.”

Some media, citing unidentified sources, said the government plans to test up to a million people every day from March and that those who do not comply will be fined HK$10,000 (1 $282).

The government did not respond to a request for comment.

“Due to the high number of cases, we need to speed up admission to hospitals and community isolation centers,” Undersecretary for Food and Health Chui Tak-yi told reporters. “The government is trying to alleviate all these bottlenecks.”

Quarantine facilities had reached capacity and hospital beds were more than 90% full, authorities said. In a bid to free up beds for isolation, Lam said late Wednesday that she had spoken with local hotel owners and planned to make up to 10,000 hotel rooms available for COVID patients. -19.


Lam’s comments came after Chinese President Xi Jinping told Hong Kong leaders their “primary mission” was to stabilize and control the coronavirus. Read more

Soaring cases and tougher rules have hit the city’s retail sector, with the Retail Management Association (HKRMA) saying on Thursday that retail traffic was down 40% from December.

“If the pandemic gets worse and our rents are kept at the current level…we won’t survive,” said Annie Tse, president of HKRMA. “Since the protests and COVID, it’s been almost three years, how much more money can we burn? she said, referring to the 2019 anti-government protests.

The association, which represents around 9,000 outlets and employs more than half of the local retail workforce, urged the government to require developers to provide rent relief to tenants and to include the sector in an anti-epidemic fund.

HKRMA expects flat year-on-year growth in retail sales for the January-June period, and said growth would easily slip into negative territory in the second half if the situation persists.

Hong Kong has adopted the same “dynamic zero” coronavirus strategy, employed by mainland China to suppress all outbreaks.

But the scale and speed of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus has left authorities scrambling. Hospitals are operating at maximum or overcapacity and long queues have formed outside testing centers, with some people waiting for hours.

Authorities said they could no longer maintain their testing and isolation mandates, leading to a backlog that could not keep pace with daily infections.

China said it would help Hong Kong boost its testing, treatment and quarantine capacity, and secure resources from rapid antigen kits and fresh vegetable protective equipment.

Hong Kong has recorded around 35,000 infections since the start of the pandemic and more than 250 deaths, far fewer than other major cities of similar size.

However, medical experts have warned that daily cases could reach 28,000 by the end of March, amid concerns about high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the elderly.

($1 = HK$7.8006)

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Reporting by Farah Master, Clare Jim, Anne Marie Roantree, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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