Hong Kong authorities have evacuated some residents at a Tsing Yi housing estate after two were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus despite living floors apart.

A 62-year-old woman who resided in Cheung Hong Estate Hong Mei House in Tsing Yi was diagnosed with the novel virus on Monday – making her the 42nd confirmed case in Hong Kong, according to the Department of Health. She lived 10 storeys below the 12th confirmed case, a 75-year-old man who lived in an apartment of the same number.

Cheung Hong Estate in Tsing Yi. Photo: Wikicommons.

The newly-confirmed patient developed a cough last Monday and sought treatment at Princess Margaret Hospital, where she was admitted on Sunday. Her respiratory sample tested positive for the virus. Her son and daughter-in-law, who shared the flat, have also presented symptoms of the virus and will be sent to Princess Margaret Hospital for treatment.

Hong Kong has confirmed 42 cases including one death from a SARS-like virus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China. More than 37,558 cases of infection have been reported globally with over 800 deaths, according to official statistics.

Dr Wong Ka-hing, controller of the CHP, said at a press conference at 1am on Tuesday that a partial evacuation of the 35-floor high-rise was a precautionary measure given the unusual circumstances of the two infection cases.

“We consider that there could be a potential risk of infection of the second who lives in this building… but we are not sure at the moment [of] the exact route of transmission,” he said. “It could be the usual droplet transmission but there is the environmental factor which is someone unique in these two cases as they live in the same building, so we cannot exclude the possibility.”

Faulty pipes

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung of the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Microbiology said the building’s piping system was under investigation as a potential cause of airborne transmission via faeces. Some of the exhaust vents might not have been properly blocked, which would have allowed fans to transport the virus to other flats, he said.

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung (left), Dr Wong Ka-hing (centre) and Tse Chin-wan (right). Photo: inmediahk.net.

Yuen rejected suggestions that the two confirmed cases bore similarities to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) community outbreak at Amoy Gardens housing estate in 2003, where more than 300 people were infected due to a suspected fault in the piping system. He said that the U-shaped water-traps at Hong Mei House were functional.

The Housing Department will inspect each flat overnight to check all exhaust vents.

Only residents living in rooms numbered seven of Hong Mei House will be evacuated. Wong said those who display symptoms will be sent to the hospital while those who do not will be transferred to quarantine centres for a few days.

Additional reporting: Rachel Wong

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.