Hong Kong reports first Omicron cluster as city welcomes New Year

Two cases of local infection were detected on Thursday – a 76-year-old and a 34-year-old, both of whom were fully vaccinated with no recent travel history. Authorities said they initially tested positive for Covid-19 after dining in a restaurant on Monday, where they were exposed to an air crew member who was later confirmed to carry the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
One of the crew members, an employee of Cathay Pacific, the city’s main carrier, arrived in Hong Kong from the United States on Christmas Day. He had tested negative twice, before testing positive for Omicron on Tuesday. He was fully vaccinated with a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine and remains asymptomatic, according to the Ministry of Health.

Health authorities announced Friday that they are also monitoring 19 new cases, most of them imported and all suspected of being Omicron — including a freight pilot who visited several popular restaurants and bars on Monday, just days after returning from the United States. On Tuesday he was determined to be in close contact with another patient and was sent to a government quarantine center; By Wednesday, he had tested positive for the virus.

Hong Kong has not had a locally transmitted Covid case of unknown source in nearly three months; The last case reported was on October 8. Although the city reported a number of imported Omicron cases from quarantined foreign travelers in December, the alternative has yet to violate the local community.

“There are now imported cases that have found their way into the community, leading to a cluster of infections. This latest development is very worrying,” Sophia Chan, Minister of Food and Health, said at a news conference on Friday.

She added that authorities are now preparing for an imminent fifth wave, and urged the public not to gather in crowded areas for New Year’s celebrations. “The next two weeks will be a critical period for Omicron’s removal. This is critical,” she said.

On Thursday night, authorities closed the apartment buildings where the 76-year-olds and 34-year-olds lived, and launched a mass testing campaign for anyone who had recently visited the building. The test covers 60 other buildings across the city, with residents only allowed to leave “restricted areas” after providing evidence of a negative test result.

The Center for Health Protection said the restaurant where the two patients dined was also closed for cleaning, sterilization and other measures to improve airflow.

“The government has remained vigil and closely monitors the latest scientific data on the mutant strains as well as the epidemiological situation in various places,” a CHP spokesman said in a statement. “The most stringent anti-epidemic measures will be implemented to prevent the mutant strain from spreading in the local community.”

Hong Kong is one of the few places around the world that is still using a zero Covid approach – meaning it aims to eliminate all cases of Covid within its borders. To this end, the city has one of the most stringent border control and quarantine programs in the world. This week, as the Omicron threat loomed, authorities tightened quarantine restrictions on aircrew — prompting Cathay Pacific to cancel a number of passenger flights to and from Hong Kong during the first quarter of 2022, and suspend long-haul cargo flights to the city for a week.
Asia Pacific wants to live with Covid.  Omicron threatens those plans to reopen

But the sustainability of this approach has come into question in recent months, as several other places such as Australia and New Zealand have abandoned the zero-Covid model in favor of “living with Covid”. In mainland China, the world’s largest anti-coronavirus country, frequent and widespread outbreaks of the disease have challenged this approach – as have recent cases in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s vaccination rate has lagged behind other developed nations, with less than 70% of the population having been fully vaccinated so far. Throughout the year, authorities struggled to encourage high vaccination rates – particularly among the reluctant elderly, who are the most vulnerable of the population.

“We have to prepare for the worst because we don’t really know how many will eventually be infected with this case,” Liu Bun, head of the Department of Public Health Laboratory Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, said Friday. “Omicron is spreading all over the world, in Europe, in the Americas, and possibly also sometime in the future in Asia.”

He added that the zero-Covid strategy is still viable for now because Hong Kong has only a few cases. He said that the past few months that have not seen local cases prove that “the triage mechanism here is very effective”.

However, it’s a trade-off, he said — stricter restrictions may prevent Covid from entering the city, but at the cost of severely disrupting the economy, the flow of goods, people’s ability to travel and other aspects of daily life. He added: “Now that we have come up with a more challenging (variable), it means we may have to adjust our control policy.”


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