Overseas arrivals in Hong Kong could be spared hotel quarantine if they took daily nucleic tests for Covid-19 and the results were delivered in under eight hours, a top health expert suggested, as the city reported just under 3,000 new infections on Saturday (July 9).
Professor Ivan Hung Fan-ngai, chief of the infectious diseases division of the University of Hong Kong, proposed the idea a day after health secretary Lo Chung-mau said the government aimed to improve the capacity and speed of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.
“Instead of 24 hours, if we could do it within eight hours or even four hours…that would definitely prevent the infected individual from going [into] the community. That would be very important in terms of controlling or containing the current wave of Covid,” Hung said.
He said enhanced PCR testing efficiency could first enable a “three plus four” arrangement, comprising three days of hotel quarantine and four days of home isolation with regular tests.
“If the situation is stable, then daily PCR testing for seven days in a row could replace the quarantine arrangement,” Hung said, adding that this hinged on testing efficiency.
Fully vaccinated travellers from overseas currently need to stay at designated quarantine hotels for seven days and undergo four PCR tests in the first two weeks of their arrival, as well as take daily rapid antigen tests while in isolation.
Health officials reported 2,995 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday and no deaths. Among the new infections were 204 imported cases, the first time the 200 mark had been exceeded since the city’s fifth wave broke out in late December.
Lo on Friday revealed details of how PCR testing could play a part in achieving a “dynamic zero” infections strategy and easing quarantine curbs.
The new minister said to ensure precise screening and prevent the isolation of uninfected individuals, authorities aimed to improve the capacity, quality, speed, convenience and affordability of PCR testing. Lo also revealed he would consider all options for quarantine arrangements.
Authorities increased daily PCR testing capacity to up to 80,000 this month from about 60,000 in June, while requiring all contractors to deliver results within 24 hours.
Respiratory medicine specialist Dr Leung Chi-chiu expressed reservations about the idea of replacing quarantine with PCR tests, noting the Omicron variant meant patients could test negative in the morning, but be “highly infectious” in the afternoon.
He also added that testing could only help detect Covid-19 cases, but did not tackle the virus’ incubation period, which could be as long as seven days.
Hung’s comments came after Hong Kong on Thursday put on hold a flight suspension mechanism under which airlines were temporarily banned from flying routes to the city if they exceeded a threshold for carrying coronavirus-infected passengers.
New Hong Kong leader John Lee Ka-chiu was asked in a televised interview on Saturday whether he had proposed the same arrangement, seen as the first step towards fully reopening the city’s international borders, under the previous administration as chief secretary.
The recently installed chief executive said he would rather not “discuss history”, noting only that each administration had tried its best to solve problems. He added the situation had also changed, with more experience gained and more support from mainland China, urging people not to make such a comparison.
Despite a recent surge in daily caseloads, Hung said there was no need to change existing social-distancing measures unless the number of severely ill patients and deaths increased.
“Although the number of infections has been rising, with the number of people in hospital doubled compared with the start of June, the figures for those with severe conditions and deaths have remained stable, which has not put huge pressure on the medical system,” he said.
The city’s overall Covid-19 tally stands at 1,267,808 cases and 9,410 related fatalities.
As of Saturday, 893 Covid-19 patients were in public hospitals, including 144 new cases. Eighteen patients were in critical condition and 22 listed as serious.
Dr Larry Lee Lap-yip, a chief manager at the Hospital Authority, said the situation was stable, and noted that nearly 2,000 extra beds could be made ready for Covid-19 patients within 48 hours.
Health authorities, meanwhile, said infected care home residents would be required to take PCR tests before being discharged from hospitals or isolation facilities, but those who had received fewer than two vaccine shots would be quarantined for two weeks even if they tested negative.
In nearby Macau, authorities have announced a seven-day city-wide lockdown and suspension of operations for non-essential commercial and industrial companies starting on Monday. The casino city recorded 71 new cases on Saturday, with the total number of infections at 1,374.
Only essential businesses, such as supermarkets, are allowed to open, and residents can only leave their homes to source emergency supplies. They must also wear a respirator with KN95 specifications or higher.
Non-essential businesses found to be open and residents not wearing an appropriate mask will be considered in breach of the order during the period and subject to a maximum of two years’ imprisonment or a 240-day fine.
Each day’s fine depends on the offender’s financial situation, with a range of 50 patacas (S$8.70) to 10,000 patacas.