Hong Kong Virus Cases Top 1,000 Again as Flight Ban Extended

City reports more than 1,500 preliminary positive infections


HONG KONG reported another record number of coronavirus cases, as well as two more deaths, with the worsening outbreak straining health-care resources and ramping up pressure on the government’s steadfast push for Covid Zero.

Authorities announced 1,325 infections on Friday, alongside more than 1,500 preliminary positive cases. That’s up from just 614 on Monday. The city said it would extend flight bans on eight countries including the U.S., U.K., and Australia to March 4, and added Nepal to the group as well.

Health officials had said there were significant number of silent chains of transmission in the community and blamed the recent Lunar New Year holiday as the source of the increase. Current numbers reflect infections from one to two weeks ago, they said Friday, warning daily numbers haven’t yet peaked.

“We cannot simply count on contact tracing and quarantine,” said Department of Health official Chuang Shuk-kwan. “The key thing is social distancing: keep away from people as much as possible, don’t go out and about much.”

While four-digit case numbers remain small compared with global peers, Hong Kong’s onerous system of tracking and isolation has pushed the health-care system to the brink. No other city has been able to quash an outbreak of this size without imposing extensive and strict lockdowns, like those deployed in mainland China, which authorities have so far indicated they won’t do.

Hong Kong and Chinese officials will hold a meeting in Shenzhen on Saturday to discuss how the mainland can support the city’s virus measures. Chief Executive Carrie Lam this week re-iterated her commitment to Covid Zero, in line with the strategy pursued by Beijing, but the approach leaves the two places isolated and subject to increasingly disruptive containment rules as they fight more transmissible variants.

The rapid uptick in cases has prompted a series of U-turns from the government.

Mild cases are now being moved out to the government-run Penny’s Bay quarantine camp, and close contacts can isolate at home. Authorities this week urged people with mild Covid-like symptoms to go to a private doctor to get tested, rather than to emergency rooms in public hospitals to have their diagnosis confirmed.

Most hospitalized cases are still mild in Hong Kong because the dominant variant is omicron, but there is little experience of Covid in the community, with the explosion in case numbers coming after months of no local transmission. Five elderly residents – three men and two women – have died this week. The two fatalities announced Friday included an 86-year-old man who was vaccinated with China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd.

Hong Kong has rolled out its toughest virus restrictions yet, including a limit on multi-family gatherings in homes and the return of a two-person limit for public gatherings. It will also expand the list of venues where entry is limited to those who are vaccinated to shopping malls, food markets and hair salons in a system that starts Feb. 24.