By Selina Cheng & Candice Chau

The family of an 88-year-old bedridden woman have lost contact with her since she was sent from an elderly nursing home linked to the Kwai Chung Estate Covid-19 cluster to a temporary quarantine centre at AsiaWorld-Expo, her daughter said.

Distraught family members were told by nursing staff that their mother – who wears adult diapers – would not be showered during her 14-day quarantine.

Jessica Denecke and her 88-year-old mother in an earlier photo. Photo: Supplied.

Around 50 elderly people were sent to the temporary quarantine centre for residents of elderly care homes at AsiaWorld-Expo on Sunday, after a 49-year-old nurse who worked at the Evergreen Nursing Home in Kwai Chung Estate was diagnosed with Covid-19. Fewer than 10 of the care home’s employees were sent to Penny’s Bay as close contacts.

The nurse tested negative for the coronavirus on January 19 and went to work the next day. His symptoms appeared last Friday, when he tested positive.

Jessica Denecke’s mother – who moved in to the Evergreen Nursing home last month and has not been vaccinated against the virus – has been bedridden since suffering two strokes in 2016. Last Saturday, Denecke was informed by the nursing home’s employees via WhatsApp that her mother would be sent to AsiaWorld-Expo to quarantine for 14 days.

The temporary quarantine centre for residents from elderly care homes at the Asia World Expo. Photo: GovHK.

She was sent another WhatsApp message early on Sunday morning informing her the home’s residents had been sent to the facility on Lantau Island, and that government workers would call her from AsiaWorld-Expo.

Denecke said she received one call from a government worker at the centre, to whom she expressed her concerns about not being able to communicate with her mother. The official promised to help look for her mother’s mobile phone, but calls to the device have not gone through since Saturday, and Denecke has not heard from staff at the centre since.

Later, the nursing home informed her that outreach staff from the Hospital Authority would take care of medications for those in quarantine. However, baths or showers could not be arranged during the quarantine period “due to infection control measures and limitations at the location,” the message read. Instead, they would be wiped down by nursing staff.

All residents had tested negative for the virus, the message said.

The Evergreen Nursing Home in Kwai Chung Estate. Photo: HK Gov.

“My mother is semi-paralysed on the left side due to her strokes. She usually needs help with basic care. There will be hygiene problems if she cannot shower for 14 days and only get wiped down,” Denecke told HKFP, a measure she said was “inhumane.”

Due to Covid-19 restrictions placed on care homes, Denecke said she was not able to visit her mother in the past year and a half, apart from when family were required to take her to medical appointments. Walks to the park or visits to restaurants were not allowed. Only video calls or visits separated by a glass pane could be arranged.

“Even in jail you get time outdoors,” Denecke said.

Photo: Supplied.

Her elderly mother would be terrified if she could not reach her family, Denecke said, and the ordeal is akin to “mental torture” for both the elderly and their families.

The government should allow families to sign off their liability issues in exchange for spending quality time with their elderly family members, she said.

Unreachable

HKFP called the Department of Health hotline for Covid-19 twice on Tuesday. A reporter was first told family members had no way of getting in touch with elderly relatives in quarantine, unless the relative had initiated a call from the quarantine centre using their own mobile phone. The hotline operator then suggested that any elderly people without mobile phones could ask the Civil Aid Service to lend them one.

Top government officials visited the temporary quarantine centre for nursing home residents in July, 2020. Photo: HK Gov.

During a second attempt, HKFP was diverted to another general enquiry number operated by the Department of Health.

In a message seen by HKFP, the Evergreen Nursing Home told Denecke it did not know the bed numbers their residents had been assigned to, and employees were not able to reach them directly.

Calls to government hotlines did not render quarantine bed or cubicle numbers, either, even when family members provided the full name and identity card number of their elderly relative.

HKFP also contacted a hotline operated by the Social Welfare Department – which manages the temporary quarantine centre for the elderly – and was told by a social worker to call the department’s licensing office for elderly care homes.

File Photo: May James/HKFP.

A total of four halls at the AsiaWorld-Expo are currently designated for use as a temporary quarantine centre for elderly nursing home residents, a Centre for Health Protection document from 2021 said. The centre had 228 beds after two halls opened in August two years ago, according to Sing Tao. Nursing staff were on duty for 24 hours a day, and there were “dedicated staff responsible for assisting in the daily living of the elderly.”

The Social Welfare Department and the Evergreen Nursing Home did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Past record

Local media reports said the quality of the centre’s service – which was provided by two contract operators – attracted frequent complaints.

In July 2020, Oriental Daily reported that elderly people in quarantine at AsiaWorld-Expo, who were mobile and able to use a disability toilet without assistance, were forced to use adult diapers because the use of toilets may facilitate the spread of the coronavirus.

Personnel in full PPE gear take out garbage containers at Hiu Kwai House in Kwai Chung Estate on January 24, 2022. Photo: HKFP/Hillary Leung

The Social Welfare Department told Oriental Daily at the time that it provided commode chairs and adult diapers to those who needed them even though there were disability toilets available, taking into consideration their physical condition, infection risk and the size of the halls. The department also purchased bathing beds and nursing staff would use wet wipes to clean the bodies of those who were not able to shower daily, a spokesperson said.

A report by Ming Pao in October that year cited a former member of staff at AsiaWorld-Expo as saying that the nursing staff there were undertrained in infection control. The person also reported seeing elderly people who did not get assistance with wiping down or changing their clothes for days.

In response to HKFP’s enquiry, the Evergreen Nursing Home said it “has kept a close eye on every resident and maintained contact with the authorities at AsiaWorld-Expo.”

“We proactively reflect the enquiries and views from our residents or their families and do our best to provide support,” a statement read.

Update 1/28: This story has been updated with a statement from Evergreen Nursing Home.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.