Coronavirus HK: Russian diplomat tests positive during home isolation, reigniting criticism of city’s quarantine exemptions

18-Oct-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

A Russian diplomat who was exempted from hotel quarantine after flying into Hong Kong has tested positive for Covid-19, triggering a lockdown of his residential building and reigniting public concerns over the self-isolation privileges granted to certain groups of people.

The diplomatic status of the 55-year-old man, identified by a source as Russia’s deputy consul-general, allowed him to quarantine at home when he entered the city on October 5, but he was revealed on Friday to be a possible carrier of the L452R strain linked to more infectious Covid-19 variants such as Delta.

The preliminary-positive case, which emerged during the man’s home confinement, prompted the overnight lockdown of Tower One of Grand Promenade in Sai Wan Ho for mandatory testing, starting at 7pm.

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The diplomat’s sample submitted on Thursday was found to have a so-called CT value of 15 to 16, suggesting a high viral load.

Respiratory medicine expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu said Hong Kong’s system of quarantine exemptions exposed a gap in the city’s coronavirus defences.

“Multi-storey [residential] buildings are not suitable for quarantine and so travellers need to be isolated in hotels or quarantine centres,” Leung said.

“This case brings certain risks to the community and nearby residents as his viral load was very high… There is a chance that there was transmission vertically or horizontally within the building.”

The tower block where the man lives has 62 floors with 443 flats.

Leung said that exemptions from hotel quarantine for diplomatic staff should be limited to very senior officers who could stay at an official residence or in accommodation that was separated from other households.

He added it was “disappointing” to again see problems arising from the exemptions regime.

There was a public outcry in July when the children of a staff member at the Saudi Arabian consulate were exempted from quarantine but later found to be infected with Covid-19.

The children had violated rules on self-isolating by leaving their home in Taikoo Shing and visited several places in the community, including restaurants.

Hong Kong on Friday confirmed nine imported Covid-19 cases, as well as about five preliminary-positive cases that included the consulate worker, who flew into Hong Kong from Russia via Finland.

Of the confirmed cases, two each came from Russia, the Philippines and India, with the remaining three from Egypt, the Maldives and Canada. Eight were carrying mutant strains of the virus, while the ninth was still awaiting test results.

The newly confirmed cases took the city’s overall tally of infections to 12,285, with 213 related deaths.

Authorities also suspended Air Canada passenger flights from Vancouver for two weeks, running from October 16 to 29.

The flight suspension coincided with provisional data released by the Hong Kong Tourism Board revealing the city’s inbound arrivals had plummeted by 98.2 per cent year-on-year, to 63,105, in the first nine months of 2021.

The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) said the Air Canada order was triggered when a passenger on flight AC007 on Wednesday tested positive on arrival, and another on the same aircraft failed to meet all the requirements necessary for entering Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, local authorities will open Covid-19 vaccination stations at four more public hospitals on Monday, allowing walk-ins to receive the German-made BioNTech vaccine, an initiative aimed at boosting the sluggish inoculation rate among the elderly.

The new stations will be set up at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital, Tseung Kwan O Hospital, Caritas Medical Centre and Prince of Wales Hospital, and will operate from 10am to 7pm on weekdays, with the exception of public holidays. Similar walk-in service is already available at Queen Mary Hospital, Queen Elisabeth Hospital and Tuen Mun Hospital.

Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who is in charge of Hong Kong’s inoculation drive, said elderly people were at higher risk of falling seriously ill with Covid-19.

“The government has decided to expand the scheme to enable more elderly persons to receive vaccination when they have [medical check-ups] at specialist outpatient clinics in hospitals,” Nip said.

He added that, on average, 200 people a day had received shots under the scheme over the past two weeks.

Nip said that authorities would also continue to assess the need to operate community vaccination centres beyond the end of December.

Dr Lam Ching-choi, chair of the Elderly Commission, told the Post on Friday that vaccination rates among the elderly remained “quite worrying”.

Since the city’s vaccination campaign kicked off in February, just 60.4 per cent of people in their 60s have received at least one dose. That figure dropped to 41.4 per cent for those in their 70s, and to just 15 per cent for people aged 80 and above.

“It seems that we can’t do anything to encourage a lot of elderly people to get vaccinated within a short period of time,” said Lam, who is also an Executive Council member.

He added that there was still an unknown number of elderly people who could not easily leave the house, and that the government had not yet undertaken any specific measures to get them vaccinated.

The government could consider sending vaccination outreach teams to such people’s homes when manpower was available, he said.

“I believe this can only begin when vaccinations at elderly care homes are almost done,” Lam said.

The government, he continued, should be clear with the elderly and their family members about the heightened risk from Covid-19 faced by seniors if Hong Kong was to open its borders and adopt a strategy of coexisting with the virus.

On Wednesday, a top government adviser at the CHP’s scientific committee on vaccines had suggested moving ahead with administering booster shots to high-risk groups, particularly those with weakened immune systems and elderly recipients of the Chinese-made Sinovac jabs.

Civil service secretary Nip on Friday said authorities “would review the current vaccination situation and the need for the third dose”, as well as who should be eligible. The government, he added, aimed to make an announcement on the operations of the community vaccine centres by the end of this month.

Separately, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong revealed on Friday that the infection rate among arriving foreign domestic workers in quarantine was down to 2.2 per cent, a near 6 percentage point drop from August 30.

He said the government would consider adding more quarantine facilities for the incoming helpers a sore subject for employers who have complained there are not enough spaces to meet demand amid a shortage of the workers.

Meanwhile, top officials from the Food and Health Bureau, the Department of Health and the Hospital Authority have also urged the public to get their seasonal flu shots. Hong Kong’s flu season typically runs from December to April.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said the government had bought more than 940,000 doses of the seasonal flu vaccine this year, adding that children, the elderly and frontline health care workers in particular should take advantage of the jabs.

“This year’s situation is quite special, because we are also dealing with the Covid-19 epidemic,” Chan said. “We must establish a dual protection against influenza and the coronavirus during the winter months if we want to reach normalcy.”


Category: Hong Kong

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