Health officials warned on Tuesday there was no room for complacency as Hong Kong confirmed another 106 coronavirus cases, a fall of more than a quarter from the previous day’s record high, while scientists fear a strain of Covid-19 circulating locally has the potential to do greater damage.
The city also reported its 23rd coronavirus death on Tuesday, the seventh straight day of triple-digit rises in new infections.
That came as local scientists revealed they had found that one Covid-19 strain circulating in the city had not mutated for at least 22 days, potentially posing greater risks to people as the virus may have adapted well to the body and become more transmissible.
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Despite the fall in new cases, health officials said more time would be needed to see whether the crisis had reached a peak.
“There is no place for complacency at the moment. We still have to observe the trend,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch at the Centre for Health Protection.
“We have not seen an exponential growth [in infections] yet, but the figures are still worrying.”
She said it would take a few days before it was known whether there was really a decrease in reported cases.
Tougher social-distancing measures come into force on Wednesday including a ban on gatherings of more than two people, takeaway services only at restaurants and mandatory mask-wearing in outdoor public places.
Among the new cases on Tuesday, 98 were locally transmitted, including 50 with no known sources of infection. About 85 people also tested preliminarily positive for the virus.
The latest person killed by Covid-19 was an 85-year-old male resident of Kong Tai Care for the Aged Centre Limited, where at least 45 infections have been recorded. So far, six people linked to the cluster had died.
The latest cases brought the city’s Covid-19 tally to 2,884. A record 145 cases were recorded on Monday.
The newest cluster to emerge involved Kin Shing (Leung’s) General Contractors, where two more people connected with the small building firm were confirmed as infected and another two tested positive, bringing the total to 17.
Those with no symptoms among the company’s more than 20 workers would be sent for quarantine.
Chuang said most cases in the cluster were linked to workers in the firm’s office in Millennium City Phase Three in Kwun Tong.
“We need to check whether they worked at some construction sites, as we found some site workers were infected,” Chuang said.
She said the infected construction workers did not have clear infection sources and there was no distinctive pattern of visits to particular sites, so more investigations were needed to see if they were linked.
Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions vice-president Chow Luen-kiu said many construction sites had already put in place anti-epidemic measures such as checking workers’ temperatures and keeping them apart during lunch. “But the problem is this disease can be asymptomatic,” he said.
It would be difficult for the government to test all of the city’s 400,000 registered construction workers, he said.
“But it’d be great if the government could offer tests to those whose jobs require teamwork, such as cementing and installing transfer plates,” Chow said.
There continued to be more infections at care homes, with another four confirmed cases and three to four positive tests at Cornwall’s Elderly Care Home in Tuen Mun. The Salvation Army Lung Hang Residence For Senior Citizens in Tai Wai recorded one more infected worker.
One case reported on July 18 was found to involve a worker at a care home in Aberdeen, while another facility in Causeway Bay also had an employee whose preliminary test was positive. At least four care homes for the elderly have recorded clusters of cases, involving more than 80 people.
Demand for isolation beds in public hospitals also continued to be high. Dr Sara Ho Yuen-ha, a chief manager from the Hospital Authority, said more than 100 patients were waiting to be admitted as of Tuesday noon.
To relieve the pressure, 230 stable Covid-19 patients had been transferred to second-tier isolation beds. Another 118 patients with minor symptoms were sent to a community isolation centre at Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village.
According to a source, AsiaWorld-Expo, a venue next to the airport that will be used as the next community treatment facility, is expected to take in stable patients from early next month at the soonest.
In an advertisement to be aired on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor warns that city is “on the verge of a large-scale community outbreak”, which could lead to the collapse of the hospital system.
“In order to protect our loved ones, our health care staff and Hong Kong, I appeal to you to follow strictly the social-distancing measures and stay at home as far as possible,” she said, adding that the central government would help the city step up testing capabilities and build a community health facility.
Meanwhile, a study that analysed the viral genetic sequencing of 26 Covid-19 cases this month found that there was no mutation seen when comparing a virus strain from an early case and another confirmed last week.
Study leader Gilman Siu Kit-hang of Polytechnic University said it was an unusual condition for the virus, which used to mutate regularly, and such a phenomenon may suggest it had adapted better to the body.
Separately, Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, an infectious disease expert from the University of Hong Kong, told the Post that he had not changed his view on how mainland China had handled the pandemic after an interview with the BBC, in which he said he suspected some sort of cover-up by officials in Wuhan, where the virus was first reported.
He believed that was the case because when experts visited Huanan seafood market, which was linked to the first group of people infected, in January it was already cleared and “the crime scene was already disturbed”.
There were questions as to whether Yuen had changed his stance, as he had told a press briefing in Hong Kong on January 21 he did not think there was a cover-up on the virus information by mainland officials.
But Yuen said on Tuesday that in his January comments he meant there was no cover-up by the central government in Beijing rather than Wuhan officials.
Professor Zhong Nanshan, a renowned respiratory medicine expert from the mainland, had also said in an interview in May that he suspected Wuhan officials had not reported the true number of infected patients at the beginning of the epidemic.
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