Anxiety and tears in HK, as young children are taken from parents for coronavirus tests

14-Apr-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Mother of two Elisabeth* recalls the day her eight-week-old son was taken away from her to be tested in hospital for Covid-19.

“Three guys in hazmat suits turned up, and then my son was gone. It was heartbreaking,” said the 41-year-old British-Canadian who has lived in Hong Kong for five years.

She could not accompany her baby to hospital on April 7 because she had to care for her 19-month-old daughter. Her 39-year-old Filipino domestic worker had tested positive for the coronavirus and was already in hospital, and her husband was in Britain.

Elisabeth’s nightmare of being separated from her son because of the pandemic is one shared by other families in Hong Kong. Parents who spoke to the Post described feeling frightened and uncertain of what lay ahead, when families had to split up to undergo tests or be quarantined.

Although they accepted that the Covid-19 crisis was an unusual situation, they complained they were not given enough information in advance, and there did not appear to be a consistent policy applied across hospitals.

The pandemic has made more than 1.6 million people ill and claimed more than 103,600 lives worldwide. In Hong Kong, there were 1,000 cases with four deaths as of Saturday.

Elisabeth said she went with her children and helper to Britain last month for a final examination for a certificate she was seeking, and spent nearly three weeks there before returning to Hong Kong on April 1, while her husband stayed back as he lived and worked there.

On April 4 all four underwent voluntary testing. The domestic worker’s result came back positive and she was sent to hospital early on April 7. The infant’s result was initially “uncertain”, but that was changed later to “presumed positive”.

Elisabeth was horrified when a doctor called and told her to pack a bag for her baby, before her test results and that of her daughter had come back. “I thought, are they just going to take my son? For how long?” she recalled. “I had no information. I was in shock.” Her son was sent to hospital on April 7.

She and her daughter tested negative, but both had to be quarantined. Elisabeth now had to decide whether to go with the baby or stay with her daughter. There was no option of taking her daughter with her to be with the baby.

She made the wrenching decision to let her baby go to hospital on his own. Her domestic helper was in a different hospital, and she checked into the Heritage Lodge quarantine centre with her daughter.

Nurses have been sending her photos of her son, and although relieved that he has shown no symptoms of Covid-19 as of April 11, she had no idea when she would see him again.

“Families should not be separated like this, especially when kids are so young,” Elisabeth said.

For Hongkonger Tony, a 40-year-old Information Technology specialist who lives and works in Shenzhen, life turned upside down when his two-year-old daughter developed a fever last month.

On March 21, his wife brought the child to Tuen Mun Hospital and the girl was admitted for Covid-19 tests. His wife then had to start a compulsory 14-day quarantine in a hotel.

For 11 days, Tony took diapers and food for his daughter, but was not allowed to be with her. “I communicated with the doctor on a daily basis and some nurses sent me her photographs,” he said, adding the hospital staff were caring. In the second week, he could make video calls to his daughter, but she would just cry and appeared traumatised, he said.

She was confirmed to be free of the virus, but he could not see her until she was discharged on April 1. “She was happy to see me, but it took her a few minutes to return to her lively nature,” he said.

Tony said parents should be allowed to visit their children admitted for tests.

When Hongkonger Connie, 32, and her 19-month-old son developed a fever last month, her GP recommended that they be tested in hospital. The marketing director, who is pregnant, decided to check into Princess Margaret Hospital for the tests. After they were admitted, however, she was told she had to be isolated and could not be with her son. “I had no idea when I would see my family again,” she said.

Her husband stayed with their son, but had to sleep on the floor. The boy tested negative and his result was known after eight hours, but they had to wait for her results too. That took another 12 hours, and she was negative too.

“I think they should have seen that we were a young family and given us more information about the arrangements at the start, so we could have made better decisions about how to stay together as a family,” she said.

Addressing concerns raised by parents, the health authorities said various rules were in place in hospitals during the pandemic, including restrictions on visitors.

The Hospital Authority, which runs all Hong Kong’s public hospitals and health care facilities, said it responded to Covid-19 by activating the emergency response level on January 25.

“To enhance infection control measures and to focus the resources to cope with the epidemic, visiting arrangements have been suspended in all public hospitals,” it said in a statement. “Compassionate arrangements will be made for clinical consideration, such as for very young paediatric patients or patients under palliative care.”

The Centre for Health Protection said anyone who tested positive for Covid-19 would be admitted to a public hospital and isolated, and other family members must go to a quarantine centre.

It said that on a case-by-case basis, caregivers might be allowed to stay in a quarantine centre to help look after quarantined individuals who might need special care, such as infants.

The Department of Health said children under 16 should have a parent with them at the quarantine centre, but if neither parents were available, a designated guardian or carer could be with the child.

Legal experts said parents could go to court to challenge decisions they found unreasonable, but given the pandemic situation, this might not be practical.

“If something is really illogical or egregious, there are ways you can go to court and ask a judge to review it,” said barrister and family law expert Shaphan Marwah.

Acknowledging the worries of parents, he said: “I think there is a crying need for a clear and consistent policy, so that people know what to expect and are not afraid to report when anyone in the family shows symptoms.”

When young children have to be admitted, he felt it would be ideal if a parent could stay with them.

Barrister Kirsteen Lau, a mother herself, has prepared a paper on the pandemic-related concerns of parents, with recommendations. “The virus doesn’t just affect individual adults, which is what the protocols seem to be designed for. They need to consider the psychological effects of separation on children and how it affects families,” she said.

Lau wants the Centre for Health Protection to publish clear guidelines on testing, treatment, isolation and quarantine protocols as they relate to children and families, and to apply these consistently.

Concerned that some parents might not come forward to be tested if they were anxious that their families could be split up, Lau said: “For many parents, the fear of being separated from their children may outweigh the fear of the virus itself. That could lead to community transmissions.”

Respiratory medicine expert Professor David Hui Shu-cheong of the Chinese University of Hong Kong said the city’s practice of isolating cases in hospital while sending close contacts into compulsory quarantine was in place for a reason.

“When you are talking about an emerging infectious disease, there is no exception,” Hui said. “Children who test positive need to be isolated, otherwise they can spread the infection to others and it will lead to community outbreaks.”

Even if parents were prepared to risk being with their children in hospital, this would not be allowed because the parents themselves might get infected. “For young children, they normally do well and the clinical cost can be quite mild, but for adults who develop an infection, sometimes it can go in a very severe direction,” he said.

Elisabeth, meanwhile, is still coping with the turmoil the pandemic wreaked on her family. As of April 11, her son and domestic worker were still in hospital, while she and her daughter remained in quarantine. She said there was never a question of not submitting her family’s voluntary test results. “Hong Kong has a fantastic medical system. I could never live with myself if something went wrong and I hadn’t taken the steps as a parent to ensure my household was safe,” she said.

“But the way things developed, it really makes me wish the process for testing, observation and hospitalisation was very different.”


Category: Hong Kong

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