Hong Kong hadn’t seen a locally transmitted COVID-19 case with an unknown source for nearly three months since the last one was reported on Oct 8. Unfortunately, this record was broken after a number of imported omicron cases from quarantined overseas travelers was reported in December; the omicron variant has struck the local community, signaling the fifth wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in Hong Kong.
The virus has made its way through some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 quarantine restrictions and social-distancing rules, including those implemented in Hong Kong. The menacing omicron variant and the outbreak of the fifth wave of infections have again given rise to a heated debate over the need for a mandatory universal testing or mass population testing, and rightly so.
In the face of a looming fifth-wave outbreak, a commendable development is that the medical community has shared data on the highly infectious omicron strand and its impact on the medical system, and has successfully convinced various parties and the SAR government of the need for rapid deployment of the most stringent social-distancing measures, which were not seen in previous waves of the outbreak.
As the strictest social-distancing rules set in in the wake of the fifth wave of the outbreak, all stakeholders, including individuals, companies, hospitals and the SAR government, have a better assessment of the costs and impact of these tightened social-distancing measures. And the SAR government has promptly announced a new round of bailouts worth HK$3.57 billion ($458.1 million) for hard-hit businesses, which will greatly help mitigate their hardship.
If there were sufficient capacity and manpower, I would be advocating the implementation of mandatory mass population testing now
Meanwhile, Hong Kong people have become less resistant to the idea of implementing mandatory universal testing, with more people now seeing this as one of the most-potential ways to contain the virus and thus shorten the stringent social-distancing rules, which have made residents’ lives miserable.
Most residents want to return to normal life soon after two years of suffering, and would like to see the new round of social-distancing measures, the strictest ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, to be as short as possible. If there were sufficient capacity and manpower, I would be advocating the implementation of mandatory mass population testing now.
However, if there is not enough capacity and manpower for mass population testing, we can adopt a stratification approach in tracing the virus’ transmission chains and containing the virus.
This requires maximizing our sewage COVID-19 testing capacity to find out which areas in the city are virus-struck and which areas have invisible transmission chains. For those virus-hit areas, we should strive to implement mandatory testing for all residents.
Sewage surveillance is particularly useful for detecting the virus in areas of high population density, particularly in identifying asymptomatic carriers, whereas patient testing is suitable for tracing the transmission chains in low-density areas.
Meanwhile, stricter social-distancing rules are advisable for high-risk groups or those at high risk of infection or being severely sick from COVID-19, such as the elderly, the immune-compromised patients, and those non-vaccinated people.
The upcoming two weeks are crucial to controlling the spread of omicron. Apart from advocating for more testing, strict quarantines, and social distancing in these two critical weeks, we need to rapidly increase our vaccination capacity. As of Jan 17, the total population with the first vaccine dose was 5.15 million (76.5 percent); the second dose, 4.73 million (70.2 percent); and third dose, 676,891. We need to raise the vaccination rate as much as possible and rapidly.
There are signs that more and more Hong Kong residents are now eager to get vaccinated but facing limited quotas in both private and public health care facilities, with slots for the next few weeks having been fully taken up. It is hoped that the SAR government will purchase more doses of the vaccine and open more vaccination centers to meet residents’ needs without delay.
Meanwhile, we should extend the city’s vaccination drive to a wider group as soon as possible. For instance, more children’s age groups should be protected. While COVID-19 symptoms tend to be milder in children infected by the virus than they are in adult patients, it can make children very sick and require hospitalization.
Children as young as 3 in Hong Kong haven’t gotten access to the Sinovac coronavirus jab yet. As the government already approved lowering the age of eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to 3 years old, down from 18 years old, we hope that the pharmaceutical company could accelerate the process of submitting a related application to the government, and the government could approve it as soon as possible.
The author, a radiologist, is a co-founder of the Hong Kong Coalition and a council member of the Chinese Young Enterpreneurs Association.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS