Omicron cluster clouds Hong Kong’s virus-free streak

Omicron cluster clouds Hong Kong’s virus-free streak

A sign is seen inside a quarantine hotel, during the coronavirus disease pandemic in Hong Kong on Aug 30. (Reuters photo)
A sign is seen inside a quarantine hotel, during the coronavirus disease pandemic in Hong Kong on Aug 30. (Reuters photo)

Two Hong Kong residents have been diagnosed with Covid-19, marking the first community spread of the virus in nearly seven months to people without a recent travel history or ties to the industry.

Both infections were linked to an air crew member who tested positive for the highly infectious Omicron variant after he moved about the city following an overseas flight.

The first community cluster of Omicron, which infects 70 times faster than previous strains, underscores the risk for Hong Kong’s Covid Zero strategy, which has kept local cases at bay since early June.

One patient, a 76-year-old man, is the father of the air crew member. He had lunch with his son and another woman at Moon Palace, an upscale, traditional Chinese restaurant in Kowloon Tong on Dec 27, government officials said during a briefing Friday.

The other is a 34-year-old man who was at the same eatery, seated 10m away, on the same afternoon with three family members.

Another infection also believed be Omicron was preliminarily detected in a ground crew member who worked in a restricted area of the airport, mainly checking the boarding passes of departing travellers, officials said. 

The ability to trace the infections back to their origins suggests there isn’t yet a widespread local outbreak in the city, which has maintained a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic. The potential Omicron risk led officials to mandate testing for everyone who lives in the same buildings as them. 

Official concerns

The risk of spreading Omicron cases triggering a fifth wave of Covid-19 has officials concerned, however. 

Work to reopen the border with mainland China is still underway, though city leaders will prioritise controlling the cluster and getting back to zero local cases to be better prepared.

Vaccination will soon be mandatory for more activities, including all indoor dining and going to the cinema, while a 500 bed field hospital is being reopened in case additional capacity is needed.

All eligible adults are being encouraged to get booster shots starting on Jan 1, after studies from around the world showed that two doses of most vaccines are inadequate to fight the more infectious Omicron variant.

The rising number of cases globally is already threatening Hong Kong as returning residents and new arrivals increasingly enter with undetected infections. Such imported cases account for most of the numbers throughout 2021.

The increasingly isolated Asian financial hub has been imposing more stringent border controls and quarantine rules in an effort to keep the virus out of the community, but concerns are mounting that it will be left behind as other major cities shift toward living with Covid as endemic.

Aircrew infections

Five Cathay aircrew members have recently tested positive for the Omicron variant after returning to Hong Kong from duty, and some of them breached protocols and failed to comply with medical surveillance regulations, the airline’s general manager of corporate affairs Andy Wong said in a statement on Friday.

Describing their actions as "extremely disappointing", Wong apologised and said the company will launch disciplinary procedures.

Crew members are supposed to limit their outings to only essential trips during their first three days back from overseas duties. Some, including those ultimately found to be infected, have instead gone to bars, restaurants and other venues, triggering testing requirements for hundreds of city residents.  

About 200 people were at Moon Palace when the crew member was having lunch with his father. Authorities have tracked and tested about 80 of them thus far. Tests haven’t turned up any additional infections.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam met Cathay executives on Friday and expressed her dissatisfaction on the breach of rules, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said at a briefing. Lam told Cathay to take remedial actions, Chan said. 

While most of the Covid-19 threat to Hong Kong has come from overseas travel, the aircrew responsible for those flights had been exempted from the quarantine rules because of the difficulty it would make for staffing. Now that has changed. 

Closing loopholes

The government decided to end the exemption on passenger flights to anywhere other than mainland China and to increase the mandatory hotel quarantine to seven days for cargo aircrew, dealing a blow to airlines and supply chains already under strain. The news was first reported by the South China Morning Post

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, suspended all long-haul freight and cargo-only flights for seven days due to stricter rules, according to a statement on its website Thursday. Earlier it said it would make "significant" changes to its passenger flight schedule due to the rule changes.  

Hong Kong is also shutting down routes for two weeks if multiple people with Covid infections are found on any one flight, or if more cases are found over the course of a week. It has banned Cathay Pacific flights from Toronto and Los Angeles from Dec 29 to Jan 11, adding to a list of suspended routes from a range of carriers flying from London and Seoul, to Dubai and Bangkok.   

The city of 7.4 million people has reported a total of 12,650 cases and 213 deaths throughout the Covid pandemic. 

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