Hong Kong is suspending from Wednesday midnight a quarantine-free scheme for all residents returning from mainland China, except those from neighbouring Guangdong province, in a bid to prevent the latest Covid-19 outbreak across the border from spreading into the city.
The government’s announcement came as an official source told the Post that a Hong Kong construction worker would be confirmed as a local unknown case on Thursday, breaking the city’s streak of nearly two months of zero local infections.
Under the Return2HK scheme, as many as 5,000 residents are allowed to enter the city each day without undergoing quarantine after taking a Covid-19 test at least 72 hours before their arrival. But with the suspension, they will now need to spend 14 days in isolation at home and submit to five rounds of testing.
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“People who have applied for quotas to return to Hong Kong under the Return2HK scheme beforehand will not be exempted from quarantine,” a government spokesman said, adding that those affected would be notified through mobile SMS.
Even as the city tightened border arrangements, authorities were acting to contain a possible threat from another source: a 13-year-old girl who was deemed a close contact of a case that sparked a cluster of the Delta coronavirus variant in Macau that had forced the city to order mandatory testing of all residents.
The girl had tested negative but she and her family had visited several densely populated areas in Hong Kong before being sent into quarantine, authorities revealed.
Officials ordered everyone who had been to the locations, including a restaurant in the popular Mira Place shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, in recent days to undergo screening.
The move to suspend the Return2HK scheme came just hours after health experts urged the government to review the latest quarantine arrangements for people who entered the city from Macau and the mainland.
“With the outbreaks in Macau and on mainland China, as well as the rapid spread of the virus globally, there is only a very short period of time before the arrival of a new wave of infections,” warned centre controller Dr Ronald Lam Man-kin.
He noted that between July 20 and August 3, the mainland recorded more than 480 infections, including asymptomatic cases. They spanned 16 provinces and more than 30 cities, and mostly involved the Delta coronavirus variant.
Authorities are continuing to monitor the case of a 43-year-old construction worker who earlier tested preliminary-positive. He will be confirmed as infected on Thursday, breaking the city’s 58-day run of zero local infections.
The city recorded two new Covid-19 cases, both imported, involving arrivals from the United States and the United Arab Emirates. Neither person had been vaccinated and both carried coronavirus variants. The city’s tally of confirmed cases stands at 11,996, with 212 related deaths.
Health officials are watching with growing alarm the emergence of infections involving the Delta variant along Hong Kong’s periphery. After 16 months of zero local cases, Macau reported on Tuesday the cluster of the highly transmissible variant involving a 12-year-old girl and three family members.
The girl contracted the virus when she travelled to Xian on the mainland for a dance tour between July 19 and 24, and then infected the family members upon returning to Macau.
The discovery prompted authorities on Wednesday to order compulsory screening for the city’s 680,000 residents, which is expected to take at least three days.
One of the classmates who accompanied the girl to Xian and shared a hotel room with her was the 13-year-old girl. She returned to Hong Kong with two family members on Monday via the Return2HK scheme after earlier testing negative for the virus.
According to Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the centre’s communicable disease branch, the girl stayed at The Luxe Manor hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui and visited multiple places, including the Mira Place shopping mall and Immigration Tower in Wan Chai.
The hotel was ordered to be locked down for overnight testing, as was the construction worker’s residence in Sham Shui Po. People who visited two construction sites in Wan Chai, where the man worked, would be issued mandatory testing orders.
The worker tested negative at hospital after returning a preliminary-positive result on Tuesday. But his case appears to be an instance of testing positive after having recovered from a previous infection.
Chuang said that given the man carried antibodies, he might have contracted the virus at least 10 days ago or possibly even earlier, when the city was reporting more cases, but the transmission went undetected.
“The preliminary-positive case has been undergoing regular testing since May, although he had one or two tests at the end of March, so one of the possibilities is that he had infection early on,” she said. “That means he is only a re-positive case and he was not infectious during the recent months.”
But she warned of another, more dangerous possibility – that the man was recently infected and the community source remained a threat.
Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said the origin of the worker’s infection might never be known, as his viral level was too low to carry out genome sequencing.
“Without the genome sequencing, we would never know who infected him,” Hui said.
Regarding the case of the 13-year-old girl, Hui said he was not overly concerned about the risk of a community outbreak if she later tested positive, given many people had already adopted effective hygiene practices.
Hui noted that even when Hong Kong previously suffered sporadic community cases involving variants they did not mushroom into wide outbreaks.
But infectious diseases specialist Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan expressed concern that the teen girl had visited restaurants, where she would have removed her mask to eat.
The experts also said the government should consider requiring some people arriving from the mainland and Macau to quarantine at hotels.
“For those returning from areas with Covid-19 cases … they should be quarantined at hotels instead of at homes,” Hui said.
While people under the Return2HK scheme must take a Covid-19 test 72 hours before arriving, Tsang said the time frame should be reduced to 24 hours.
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