Hong Kong chief says there is no fixed deadline for mass testing
HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Wednesday that reducing the meteoric death toll in the latest coronavirus outbreak is the city’s top priority, laying out a plan to test the entire population waiting in the latest about-face of the government’s pandemic response.
Lam said there was “no specific timeframe” for a citywide test, two weeks after announcing it would happen this month. Its earlier announcement, coupled with rumors of a city lockdown, left store shelves empty as residents stocked up on daily necessities.
The city of 7.4 million is in the grip of a spiraling omicron outbreak that has overwhelmed hospitals and morgues and reduced hours or closed restaurants and other shops in the normally bustling financial hub. More than 500,000 infections and more than 2,000 deaths have been recorded since the start of the fifth wave in late December, with many casualties among unvaccinated older people.
The government is focused on reducing the number of deaths and critical cases, as well as the rapid spread of the virus, Lam said at a press conference with other senior officials and the slogan “Combating the epidemic with unwavering national support” in the background.
Any citywide testing would depend on the trend of the outbreak, she said. “If we are going to do it…we will definitely announce it as soon as possible so that the public can participate and anticipate what will happen during the period.”
To reduce the death toll, infected patients will be treated centrally, with the city’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital becoming a dedicated COVID-19 hospital, she said. Some 1,500 beds will be reserved.
Some general wards of other hospitals will also be converted to COVID-19 beds, and an emergency hospital will be built by mainland authorities for the city that will be supported by medical personnel from elsewhere in China.
Mainland China is also grappling with an increase in the number of new cases, although much lower than in Hong Kong. Another 233 cases of national transmission were reported on Wednesday, taking the total to 899 since the daily tally returned to triple digits last Friday – the highest numbers since 2020, shortly after the initial outbreak was detected in the central city from Wuhan.
The bulk of the most recent cases have been found in the northeastern province of Jilin, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) north of Hong Kong, as well as the east coast province of Shandong. Beijing itself recorded six new cases.
China has instituted mass testing and lockdowns of specific neighborhoods, but there have been no reports of entire cities being locked down, which happened in the run-up to the Winter Olympics recently. completed in Beijing.
In Hong Kong, Lam called for support and cooperation from private hospitals to cope with the volume of patients. She said some private hospitals have agreed to provide beds for COVID-19 patients.
The spike in cases over the past two months has strained the healthcare system, with many public hospitals reaching capacity. Authorities deployed refrigerated containers to store the bodies as public morgues ran out of space.