Hong Kong is approaching its capacity to handle Covid-19 cases, as the latest omicron threat puts a strain on the city’s overloaded health-care system.
The city is treating more than 340 Covid cases — the vast majority returning travelers — mainly in North Lantau Hospital near the airport, according to Tony Ko, Chief Executive of the Hospital Authority, which manages public hospitals. The venue with more than 800 beds will run out of space in four or five days if it keeps receiving 40 to 50 new cases a day, Ko said at a briefing on Wednesday. To cope with the emergency, the government has opened facilities at the AsiaWorld-Expo convention center which has 500 beds.
The total number of infected patients almost doubled every week over the past four weeks, the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at the briefing.
“The speed is exposing us to a great risk and putting huge pressure on Hong Kong’s public hospitals,” Lam said.
While other public hospitals also have isolation facilities, they are already running out of space during the winter peak season with a surge of medical demand. Non-paediatric inpatient wards at all but three of Hong Kong’s 17 public hospitals were fully occupied on Monday.
Health facilities are also stretched partly due to the government’s high standard for releasing Covid patients, which requires them to stay in hospitals for at least 10 days. They are not allowed to leave until they’ve obtained two consecutive negative test results. After leaving hospital, patients still need to be isolated at government facilities for another 14 days.
Authorities are preparing for potential community outbreaks with added steps, including by relocating some patients with other illnesses in order to release beds for future virus cases, Ko said. A spokesman for the Hospital Authority also said on Wednesday that the body will consider adding another 500 beds at AsiaWorld-Expo if necessary.
The concern over hospital capacity is a major reason why Hong Kong imposed far-reaching restrictions this week, capping restaurant dining-in hours, banning flights and shutting gyms and bars. Because its vaccination rate is among the lowest for developed economies — and many residents have taken a shot by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. that studies say protects less again omicron — there is uncertainty over how the variant’s spread locally will play out. While the infection surge in Western countries has so far been mild, their populations are more highly vaccinated than in Hong Kong, and they also have substantial levels of natural immunity from previous waves.
The new rules return the city to the social distancing restrictions that were in place a year ago as the government scrambles to prevent omicron from spreading further in the community after reporting its first local case this week.
Hong Kong has maintained some of the world’s strictest virus containment measures in an attempt to seek travel resumption with mainland China, which has zero tolerance to outbreaks. Many in the local business community have grown frustrated with the policy as major overseas cities such as London and Singapore open up.