Hong Kong reported a record 1,514 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, as officials struggle to contain the outbreak despite stricter restrictions brought across the border to discuss support from China.
Hong Kong and mainland China are among the few places in the world still aiming to quell every outbreak of COVID-19 rather than trying to live with the virus, but the Omicron variant has proven difficult to control in the global financial hub.
New infections rose from 1,325 on Friday, and another 1,500 positive infections or so came in preliminary tests that may be added to the number in the near future. Three people died.
“This is the toughest battle against the virus in the past two years,” Edwin Tsui, an observer with the Center for Health Protection, told reporters.
“Please stay home. We need your cooperation.”
Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary John Lee, Health Minister Sophia Chan and Chief of Security Chris Tang were in neighboring Shenzhen on Saturday to discuss support measures with Chinese officials.
The measures are expected to include providing millions of test kits and helping build more quarantine facilities and possibly a temporary hospital, as medical capacity becomes exhausted on all fronts.
Authorities have said hospital beds for COVID-19 patients are already running about 90%, while isolation facilities are nearing their limit.
Hundreds of thousands of people, including the elderly and children, were forced to get tested daily, queuing for hours in packed queues outside overcrowded testing centers.
University of Hong Kong epidemiologists say the number of infections could reach tens of thousands per day within weeks, posing a major risk to the city’s elderly, many of whom have not been vaccinated after Hong Kong’s success in keeping the virus at bay for so long. From the epidemic led to complacency.
Cui said infections have been recorded in about 42 nursing homes for the elderly.
Some epidemiologists say a complete mainland-style lockdown of about two months could bring the infection count back to zero, but caution that this won’t be a permanent solution as Omicron could find its way back into town again soon after.
In a pre-recorded interview with local broadcaster Now TV released late Friday, Health Minister Chan said she did not want the lockdown to be imposed and that he would prefer residents “do it themselves” by staying at home.
Hong Kong has recorded more than 20,000 infections and just over 200 deaths since the start of the epidemic, far fewer than in most other places, but at a significant economic and psychological cost.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s most isolated big cities, with flights down 90%, and hardly any of them being allowed through.