After enjoying a 42-day streak of zero untraceable cases, a case of the Alpha variant has local health authorities scrambling to get to the bottom of things.
The 17-year-old girl, who had no recent overseas travel history, was confirmed as a carrier of the B.1.1.7 variant that was first detected in Britain in September. Her sister and mother were also confirmed carriers of the same variant. The three cases added to the 283 cases of this variant, which is known to be highly contagious.
Before the infection was confirmed, tests revealed high CT (cycle threshold) levels. Further investigations revealed that the family visited various parts of Hong Kong, including Hung Hom, Tai Po, Tin Shui Wai and Cheung Sha Wan. The city remains on high alert, as any potential cases are likely to be in their incubation stages.
While we are still riding out the fourth wave in Hong Kong, personnel in medical circles know that the pandemic is far from over. And with over 10,000 cases recorded and 210 deaths thus far, the question of a fifth wave hitting Hong Kong is a matter of “when”. There are also fears that new variants will emerge.
Viruses are highly adaptable and evolve to subsist. The virulent 1918 influenza pandemic swept the world through three waves of infections that lasted over two years.
Even with nationwide vaccination programs that are well underway in the United States, the country continues to lead with the highest number of infections and deaths at around 34.3 million and over 599,000 respectively. Over in Britain — which ranks in the top seven in infections and deaths — over 4.6 million cases and some 128,000 deaths have been reported.
And as expected, there has been some pushback against vaccine-related mandates as some continue to resist vaccinations. This, combined with a drop in testing, has raised concerns about tracking future cases and outbreaks in the US.
Employees at Houston Methodist Hospital in the state of Texas recently had their lawsuit against the hospital’s vaccine mandate dismissed by a federal judge. The cohort of employees against receiving vaccinations as a condition of employment were told that the requirement is being upheld in the name of safety. Furthermore, it has been said to be consistent with public policy. Several major hospital regions such as Washington, D.C. and Maryland are enforcing this mandate. The state of California is also encouraging its people to receive full vaccinations.
The Chinese mainland remains committed to maintaining its strict prevention measures and continuous testing. As a result, it maintains a low number of cases and deaths, totaling 91,629 and 4,636 respectively as of Tuesday.
But even with the highest level of restrictions and all-round vigilance, the mainland’s approach still isn’t 100 percent fail-proof. Guangdong fell victim to a sudden surge of COVID-19 cases between the end of May and the beginning of June. Therefore, vaccination to achieve herd immunity is of the utmost importance to fight this pandemic.
With difficulties in producing their own vaccinations, Taiwan has accepted expiring vaccination dosages from Japan and declined those produced in the mainland. The US is also due to export 2.5 million vaccine doses to the island.
As a result — and out of desperation — some well-to-do Taiwan residents have flown to the US to receive their vaccination. Some Hong Kong residents have likewise returned from Taiwan to get vaccinated.
As for Hong Kong, while personal hygiene and prevention measures are being strictly followed, getting rid of the pandemic isn’t yet a certainty without herd immunity. We need at least 70 percent of the 7.5 million population to be immunized to achieve this, but thus far only 29 percent have received their first vaccination. The figure is even lower at 19 percent for full vaccinations.
Hong Kong residents remain reluctant to come forward, due at least in part to a combination of irresponsibility and erroneously reported unrelated side effects (e.g., cardiac arrests) that have scared lots of people not to receive the vaccination.
To tackle fearmongering, I made a recommendation in March that the government publish daily fatalities of heart attacks and strokes of people who had not received their COVID-19 vaccinations. Hopefully, these background figures will alleviate some of the unfounded fears.
Gratefully, the private sector is doing its bit to encourage vaccinations through lottery prizes. The promise of a HK$10.8 million (US$1.39 million) flat, six-figure cash prizes, an antique Rolex watch, and a Tesla are among the prizes being offered to vaccine recipients.
Many doctors are contemplating incentives such as free consultations or medical procedures such as a free SMILE (small incision lenticule extraction) to entice people to receive their vaccine doses.
But in the meantime, we need to remind people to remain vigilant to protect themselves and others, and by others, I include the city itself.
Without herd immunity, the pandemic will continue to chip away at our economy. Our retail and hospitality sectors have seriously suffered, possibly structurally over the course of the pandemic. We need to come together for the greater good, which is to revive our city’s moribund economy.
Although I have repeatedly drawn attention to the high infection and death rates in the US and Britain, their high vaccination rates — alongside vaccine stockpiling as they have not made meaningful donations to desperate nations — have allowed them to gradually ease their lockdowns. As a result, their economies are receiving a much-needed boost as normality returns.
Israel has demonstrated high social responsibility of its citizens and low mortality rates. Despite its high infection number of over 839,000, its comparably low mortality figure of 6,428 has been attributed to the diligence of its citizens and its high vaccination rate. At present, 56.8 percent have been fully vaccinated.
Therefore, the way forward is clear for Hong Kong. Continual vigilance and high vaccination rates with herd immunity as the goal will be the final battle against this long-drawn-out pandemic. Only with high vaccination rates can our lives and economy return to normal. And vaccination is not only a means to protect oneself against the virus but a social responsibility that we owe to our city.
The author is president of Wisdom Hong Kong, a think tank.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS