Published: 01:14, March 24, 2020 | Updated: 05:59, June 6, 2023
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Sustainability of medical system questioned as infections soar
By Gu Mengyan in Hong Kong

Hong Kong reported 39 new coronavirus infections on Monday, the third-highest daily jump since COVID-19 hit the city, pushing the local tally to 356 — up about 250 percent in three weeks. 

This has led to concerns about whether the city’s medical system, with more than 50 percent of all isolation beds now occupied, can handle such a rapid increase in the number of daily infections.

The city’s testing labs have started to feel the strain of limited resources after it distributed more than 1,000 containers to inbound asymptomatic travelers to collect their saliva specimens

the Centre of Health Protection

Thirty of the newly confirmed patients had recent travel histories to virus-stricken countries during the incubation period. They included seven returning students and two Cathay Pacific flight attendants who had visited the United Kingdom.

The spike in cases was reported the same day that the government said it will ban foreign tourists from entering the city at the airport for two weeks effective Wednesday in a bid to stop imported cases.

But infectious disease experts are worried the city’s medical employees and public hospitals will soon be overwhelmed by a surging number of patients if the disease continues to spread locally. 

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The Centre of Health Protection said the city’s testing labs have started to feel the strain of limited resources after it distributed more than 1,000 containers to inbound asymptomatic travelers to collect their saliva specimens. More will be tested as the government announced on Monday it will test all arrivals from the United States, the UK and Europe. 

All but one have been confirmed in connection with previous patients. Four patients were at a private party attended by more than 100 in Wong Chuk Hang on March 14. Another patient was found to have dined for 20 minutes at a canteen of Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital after returning his deep throat saliva specimens to the hospital on Saturday.

The 21 male and 18 female patients, aged 18 to 66, also included a 54-year-old female doctor who had been screening inbound travelers at Hong Kong International Airport since March 16. Health authorities are still investigating how the doctor, despite wearing a face mask, a face shield and gloves, became infected.

Ho Pak-leung, a top microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said more medical employees will be exposed to the risk of catching the deadly virus if public hospitals become overloaded.

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He said it is acceptable to treat patients with mild symptoms in other places with good ventilation, considering public hospitals may soon run out of space if the local situation deteriorates.

So far, 73 percent of the isolation wards are being used and 51 percent of the isolation beds are occupied, said the Hospital Authority, adding that another 400 beds will be upgraded for isolation use by the end of the month.

As of Monday, three of the 213 patients being treated are in critical condition and need respirators to maintain normal breathing.

Lam Ching-choi, a member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council, said the government is “exploring different options”, including setting up temporary facilities to divert suspected coronavirus patients. This is to relieve pressure on public hospitals.

“The pressure is high. It’s okay so far but we should prepare for the coming surge,” the doctor told China Daily.

The ExCo member said there may have been a few undetected cases, which are very likely to be linked to rising local infections, before the mandatory quarantine rules for arrivals took place on Thursday.