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Hong Kong to focus COVID-19 resources on elderly, says mandatory testing 'not a priority' for now

Hong Kong to focus COVID-19 resources on elderly, says mandatory testing 'not a priority' for now

Workers wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) isolation facility in Tsing Yi, during the COVID-19 pandemic in Hong Kong, China, March 8, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

HONG KONG: Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced a series of measures targeted at elderly residents on Wednesday (Mar 9) as a surge of COVID-19 infections sweeps through care homes with deaths rapidly climbing among the city's mainly unvaccinated seniors.

The government will strengthen medical treatment and resources and set up more isolation and temporary care facilities for elderly coronavirus patients, Lam told a media briefing.

She said a date for a compulsory mass testing scheme, which has triggered panic buying of groceries and essentials in the city, was still being considered but the government had not decided on a timeframe given the huge scale of the operation.

"It is a major exercise which cannot be done overnight. If it is not prepared with all the details and mobilised with all the resources, it's not possible."

Her comments come after a top Chinese official said Hong Kong had to prioritise reducing infections, severe illnesses and deaths.

Total infections in the global financial hub have surged to about 600,000, including more than 2,600 deaths - most in the past two weeks.

Health authorities reported close to 60,000 new infections on Wednesday, split between nucleic acid tests and those confirmed via a newly launched online platform where residents can submit positive rapid antigen test results.

The city suffered the most deaths globally per million people in the week to Mar 7, according to the Our World in Data publication.

Lam who was addressing the media for the first time in more than two weeks, said she would be holding daily media briefings to detail the city's progress against the coronavirus and clarify rumours or misunderstandings.

Two weeks ago, she had said all residents in Hong Kong would need to undergo three rounds of compulsory testing

But Wednesday's announcement marked a rollback, as authorities have now pivoted to using rapid tests - instead of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests - to determine the city's estimated cases, Lam said.

"A large number of (rapid tests) are already being used ... which has already allowed us to understand Hong Kong's situation pretty well," she said.

"What we are doing now is planning and preparation but it's not a priority for now," she said, adding that the plan for universal testing has not been nixed.

Residents in the Chinese controlled territory have been confused and frustrated over contrasting messages from the government over the past two weeks about its campaign against the virus, including a plan for mass testing and whether a city-wide lockdown would be imposed.

China and Hong Kong have adopted a "dynamic zero" strategy that involves eliminating infections with strict mitigation measures as opposed to the approach adopted in other places of relying on high vaccination rates and moderate mitigation like masks in an effort to "live with COVID".

The highly transmissible Omicron variant has tested both strategies but Hong Kong is now suffering the consequences of a relatively low vaccination rate, especially among the elderly, as the virus rips through the community.

About 90.5 per cent of residents have had at least one vaccination but rates for the elderly have severely lagged with only about 50 per cent for those aged 80 years and above.

Medical experts from the University of Hong Kong have estimated that by the end of April the number of people infected in the city of 7.4 million people could be about 4.3 million, with a death toll of 5,000.

Hong Kong's hospitals, isolation centres and funeral parlours are swamped while public transport, malls, postal services, supermarkets and pharmacies are struggling to operate due to a severe manpower crunch.

Food prices have shot up and supermarket shelves have been emptied every day for a week as shoppers panic buy, on fears of a potential lockdown.

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Source: Reuters/lk