Coronavirus: HK students and civil servants asked to help monitor people returning from mainland China as mandatory quarantine comes into force

10-Feb-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong students and civil servants are being recruited to help monitor people returning to the city from mainland China, who will be subject to mandatory quarantine from midnight on Friday.

As the government stepped up measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak, university students enrolled on medical and nursing programmes were being approached to volunteer, but details on how it would be carried out remained sketchy.

People crossing the border into Hong Kong will be quarantined for 14 days, starting on Saturday.

In an email to students, Dr Edmund Fong, principal medical officer at the Department of Health, said the need for volunteers was urgent.

“The new measure entails a surge of work such as medical surveillance and offering health advice to these people,” he wrote.

“As such, the Department of Health appeals to your support and is urgently looking for Year 5 and Year 6 medical students who are interested to be our volunteers and help us to conduct the surveillance work.”

In an email obtained by the Post, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung made an appeal to all government department heads asking them to release staff where possible and to reach out to retirees to take up non-medical tasks from the health department, Home Affairs Bureau and Social Welfare Department.

“To tackle the critical situation triggered by the novel coronavirus infection, I write to appeal for your full support in releasing your staff where practically possible to take up some operational but non-medical/non-professional tasks to provide urgent support,” he wrote.

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“You are also invited to help reach out to retirees to find more volunteers for undertaking the tasks. Our concerted effort is vital. Accordingly, their salary would remain the same.”

Volunteers would be given appropriate briefings and training beforehand as well as the necessary equipment such as suitable protective gear for the specific tasks assigned, he added.

Among the tasks civil servants could be assigned would be to call people at home, to conduct random spot checks to ensure people comply with the quarantine, and to deliver meals and other goods to people stuck at home.

According to Fong’s email, student volunteers would make calls to those in quarantine to ensure their compliance, conduct medical surveillance, and provide health advice when necessary.

The surveillance work is due to begin on Sunday, and is scheduled to run from 9am to 10pm every day, in two eight-hour shifts.

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Students at Chinese University (CUHK) confirmed they had received the email from the department.

Meanwhile, the Open University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies said on its Facebook page the department was looking for Year 4 and Year 5 nursing students to volunteer.

However, the university later said in an emailed statement it had been informed by the Department of Health that no students were required to help at this time.

The city’s two medical schools, at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and CUHK, take in some 400 students for doctor training each year. There are also some 600 places each year for students studying nursing.

Professor Gabriel Leung, the dean of HKU’s faculty of medicine, which last week said medical staff who crossed the border would be exempt from a quarantine imposed on students, said the best way to stop the spread of the virus was to close all borders, preventing any more carriers from entering the city.

Hong Kong residents returning from the mainland should remain disciplined and self-quarantine in their homes for 14 days, while tourists should not be allowed to quarantine on their own in hotels, as centralised air conditioning systems could increase the risk of the virus spreading, Leung said.

He suggested the government use quarantine camps or take over entire hotel buildings to prevent cross-contamination.

He said the coronavirus was difficult to handle as it could spread faster than the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) virus, and even people with light symptoms could have high virus counts.

People who were infected but showed no symptoms would further complicate prevention measures, he said.

“I also have not seen any data that backs up the fact that warmer temperatures and higher humidity can stop the virus from spreading,” Leung said, adding that he agreed with fellow HKU epidemiologist Keiji Fukuda’s assessment that summer heat would not slow the outbreak.

“It is foolish and unscientific to just rely on the hot weather to return to stop the virus.”

In the face of pressure to completely close border checkpoints, and accusations of failing to act quickly or decisively in combating the disease, the government said on Wednesday all arrivals from the mainland would need to be quarantined for 14 days.

But no details have been released on how the plan is to be implemented. Sources told the Post that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was still locked in meetings over facilities and details on the plans on Thursday.

Questions have been raised about whether the administration has sufficient manpower and resources to handle mainland visitors and Hong Kong citizens returning from north of the border.

Over the past week, more than 300 current and retired members from Hong Kong’s disciplined services have also volunteered to conduct temperature checks, and to set up quarantine sites, as the city faces a shortage of people to deal with the outbreak.

Correctional workers have also joined prison inmates who have been making surgical masks for government use, boosting production to 90,000 a day, from the previous target of 70,000 a day. About 60 correctional staff volunteered for the work.

As of Friday, the number of coronavirus cases worldwide had climbed to nearly 30,000 and nearly 650 deaths have been reported, mostly in mainland China.

There were 25 confirmed cases in Hong Kong, with the city recording its first fatality on Tuesday.


Category: Hong Kong

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