HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong announced plans to devote more medical resources to elderly people on Wednesday as COVID-19 infections swept through care homes and deaths climbed rapidly among the mainly unvaccinated seniors.
The government will strengthen medical treatment and resources and set up more isolation and temporary care facilities for elderly coronavirus patients, Chief Executive Carrie Lam told a media briefing.
She said a date for a compulsory mass testing scheme, which has triggered panic buying of groceries and essentials in the city, was still being considered but the government had not decided on a timeframe given the huge scale of the operation.
“It is a major exercise which cannot be done overnight. If it is not prepared with all the details and mobilised with all the resources, it’s not possible.”
Her comments come after a top Chinese official said Hong Kong had to prioritise reducing infections, severe illnesses and deaths.
Total infections in the global financial hub have surged to about 600,000, including more than 2,600 deaths – most in the past two weeks.
Health authorities reported close to 60,000 new infections on Wednesday, split between nucleic acid tests and those confirmed via a newly launched online platform where residents can submit positive rapid antigen test results.
The city suffered the most deaths globally per million people in the week to March 7, according to the Our World in Data publication.
Lam who was addressing the media for the first time in over two weeks, said she would be holding daily media briefings to detail the city’s progress against the coronavirus and clarify rumours or misunderstandings.
Residents in the Chinese controlled territory have been confused and frustrated over conflicting messages from the government over the past two weeks about its campaign against the virus, including a plan for mass testing and whether a city-wide lockdown would be imposed.
China and Hong Kong have adopted a “dynamic zero” strategy that involves eliminating infections with strict mitigation measures as opposed to the approach adopted in other places of relying on high vaccination rates and moderate mitigation like masks in an effort to “live with COVID”.
The highly transmissible Omicron variant has tested both strategies but Hong Kong is now suffering the consequences of a relatively low vaccination rate, especially among the elderly, as the virus rips through the community.
About 90.5% of residents have had at least once vaccination but rates for the elderly have severely lagged with only around 50% for those aged 80 years and above.
Medical experts from the University of Hong Kong have estimated that by the end of April the number of people infected in the city of 7.4 million people could be about 4.3 million, with a death toll of 5,000.
Hong Kong’s hospitals, isolation centres and funeral parlours are swamped while public transport, malls, postal services, supermarkets and pharmacies are struggling to operate due to a severe manpower crunch.
Food prices have shot up and supermarket shelves have been emptied every day for a week as shoppers panic buy, on fears of a potential lockdown.
China has built a temporary bridge from neighbouring Shenzhen to the north of Hong Kong to transport materials and workers for a makeshift hospital and isolation facilities. The site is set to provide accommodation for about 10,000 people.
Reuters journalists saw dozens of trucks crossing the bridge, delivering supplies on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Farah Master, Twinnie Siu, Joyce Zhou, Marius Zaharia, Jessie Pang and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Michael Perry and Lincoln Feast)