HK fourth wave: easing Covid-19 rules could lead to rebound, health officials warn; experts reassess vaccination roll-out

19-Jan-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Relaxing social-distancing measures in Hong Kong ahead of Lunar New Year could lead to a rebound in coronavirus infections, officials have warned, while the city also faces a possible delay in its vaccination drive.

Health experts said they would not rule out pushing back the coming inoculation campaign amid concern over side effects of the Pfiser-BioNTech vaccine, following reports of deaths in Norway, as Hong Kong confirmed 50 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday.

Officials also cautioned that while the daily caseload had been hovering between 25 and 60 this month, the transmission rate of the virus seemed to be increasing.

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The warning came as the global death toll for Covid-19 passed the 2 million mark.

Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Centre for Health Protection, said: “The figures are still up and down and we have not observed a definite downward trend in the recent one or two weeks. Any relaxation in the [social-distancing] measures, and if the general public does not have vigilance in keeping all these measures, the numbers may rebound.”

She said transmission of the virus seemed to have quickened. “In the past only close contacts were infected, but now we also see transmission at workplaces or among people who didn’t have much contact.”

Social-distancing rules are in effect until at least January 20.

All but one of the new cases were local infections. Fifteen were untraceable including five from 20 premises issued with mandatory testing orders in Yau Tsim Mong district on Friday. The latest caseload was a jump from the 38 infections reported on Friday.

Around 30 people tested preliminary-positive for the virus.

Two more buildings in the area, where more stringent testing criteria were imposed, were issued with the screening order. Orders were issued for 23-25 Reclamation Street and Top Jade Mansion on Canton Road. Anyone who had been to these buildings in the past two weeks would need to get tested by Tuesday.

The Home Affairs Department said more than 1,100 residents who were issued with the order had gone for testing. Another 2,300 had gone for voluntary testing. The department had also registered the information of more than 440 households in the area for follow-up.

Clusters at two construction sites and a public housing block worsened. They included four more cases linked to the site of the central tunnel of the Central Kowloon Route, pushing the cluster to 30, and two more related to the Tseung Kwan O-Lam Tin Tunnel, bringing the total there to 42.

Yan Shek House at Shek Yam Estate in Kwai Chung, where an evacuation of residents from flats numbered 9 was ordered on Thursday after multiple infections, saw at least one new case in another such home. Nine cases have now been recorded from four flats numbered 9 in the block.

A new case was also recorded at a flat numbered 8.

Chuang said 28 environmental samples taken at the block all tested negative for the virus.

The city has recorded 9,502 confirmed infections and 162 related deaths. The latest victim was a 73-year-old man.

Fears over the vaccine, which Hong Kong has procured along with two other types, were raised by two members of a government advisory panel ahead of a meeting on Monday, with the local vaccination campaign set to begin after the Lunar New Year holiday in mid-February.

Citing reports of 23 people all of whom were over 80 dying after they received their first jabs in Norway, David Hui Shu-cheong and Wallace Lau Chak-sing told a radio programme that local authorities were focused on safety.

Hui, a respiratory medicine expert at Chinese University, said: “After reviewing the existing data, we will have to ask the developers to provide more information. What did they discover from the autopsy reports? Were the deaths linked to the vaccines?”

About 33,000 people in Norway have received their first shots, with at least 29 determined to be suffering from side effects.

Citing autopsy results from 13 cases, Norwegian health authorities said the Pfiser-BioNTech vaccine, developed jointly by the American and German companies, could have caused severe reactions in the frail and aged.

“Safety and efficacy remain our top priority when we make the decisions,” said Lau, convenor of Hong Kong’s 12-member Advisory Panel on Covid-19 Vaccines.

He said authorities could not rule out the possibility of postponing the decision on vaccination amid the safety concerns, as they also hoped to review more data and assess side effects reported elsewhere.

In the United States, 21 cases of severe allergic reactions were also reported last month after about 1.9 million first doses were administered.

Despite the reports, Lau appealed to those who were younger and healthier to take the jab, as herd immunity might be achieved when 70 per cent of the city’s population was vaccinated.

Meanwhile, after issuing the first isolation order since the start of the pandemic to contain an escalating outbreak in four tenement buildings at 20,22, 24 and 26 Reclamation Street, health authorities said many subdivided flats there did not have lists of tenants, making contact tracing difficult. About 90 residents had been sent to quarantine centres.

“We’re not sure if all the residents have been moved to the quarantine camp,” Chuang said.

“Some residents say some people have come back to the building, [going] in and out.

“That is why we issued an isolation order to stop people from coming in or going out.”

She said police and health protection officers had conducted four rounds of door-to-door inspections to identify residents.

Worldwide, scientists were also closely watching the emergence of new variants, which, though not unexpected, could alter the effectiveness of vaccines.

Earlier this week, American researchers found a variant distinct from mutations uncovered in Britain and South Africa, confirming suspicions that a new strain had emerged in the US.

In mainland China, authorities were battling an outbreak in Hebei province, with almost 700 people infected in two weeks, including 646 in the provincial capital Shijiazhuang.

The government announced it would extend lockdowns in Shijiazhuang and Langfang to Monday and Tuesday. Shijiazhuang and nearby Xingtai city had been in lockdown for 10 days. Restrictions on most of Xingtai have been lifted.

In Hong Kong, dozens of people were seen entering and exiting the Kwun Chung Sports Centre, where thousands of residents from 22 buildings in Yau Tsim Mong district will be tested under the government order.

The mandatory tests were ordered after the district was identified as a virus hotspot with 33 Reclamation Street residents infected.

“Today is just the first day, so I think they are doing very well,” said a 50-year-old retail worker who came out to be tested, and who gave her name as Sally. “There’s not many people, and we only have to wait a few minutes.”

The district is also home to a large proportion of families belonging to ethnic minority groups, mainly from Nepal, some of whom also turned out for testing on Saturday.

In an effort to address communication gaps, the government said it had hired workers who speak ethnic minority groups’ native languages to help explain the measures to locals, though it was unclear whether they had been deployed on Saturday.

While Pramod Pradhan, a 40-year-old Nepalese resident, said the testing operation at the sports centre was “impressive”, he also called for more resources to be available in Nepali.

“There are so many notice boards, but most Nepalese people don’t understand them as they are only in Chinese and English,” said Pradhan, who lives in Jordan Mansion, one of the blocks under the testing order.


Category: Hong Kong

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