The Hong Kong government has appointed leaders to five task forces that will work with with mainland authorities to tackle the city’s fifth wave of Covid-19, which has seen case numbers surpass 1,000 daily infections in recent days.

Meanwhile, health officials said the city’s medical and quarantine capacity has been overloaded, and hospitals are reserving isolation wards for children, the elderly, and patients with serious symptoms.

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Aerial photos show residents forming long queues at outdoor mobile specimen collection stations for Covid19 testing in Hong Kong last Friday. Photo: Yan Zhao/AFP.

In a statement released in the early hours of Monday, the office of the chief executive said that the city’s leader Carrie Lam held an internal high-level meeting on Sunday and assigned five top officials as convenors for specialist task forces to coordinate with representatives of mainland’s Central Authorities and the Guangdong Provincial Government.

Lam thanked mainland authorities in the statement and said the government would “spare no effort” in its pursuit of “dynamic zero infection,” and “leverage the Central Authorities’ guidance based on their experience in fighting the epidemic, as well as their manpower and resource support.”

“The onslaught of the fifth wave of the epidemic has dealt a heavy blow to Hong Kong and overwhelmed the city’s capacity of handling,” Lam said, referring to isolation facilities. The government was “worried” about and “sorry” for the long waits for Covid-19 patients to be admitted to quarantine facilities, the statement read.

Carrie Lam Covid-19
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam meets the press on February 8, 2021 to announce new Covid-19 social distancing rules. File photo: GovHK.

The chief executive appointed the Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan as the leader for the task force of epidemiologists, who will coordinate the Department of Health, the Hospital Authority and local experts to work with mainland experts to carry out pathological investigations and analyses.

Erick Tsang, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, was assigned leader of a team that will enhance the city’s testing capability, while Secretary for Development Michael Wong will be responsible for the construction of quarantine and treatment facilities with the mainland’s help.

Additionally, Edward Yau, the secretary for commerce and economic development, will be responsible for ensuring Hong Kong’s medical supplies, while the Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan will oversee the logistics of daily supplies and other necessities from mainland.

The Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee was appointed to handle the coordination of the five task forces and report to Lam.

Carrie Lam Kwai Chung Estate
(Second to left) Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Chief Secretary John Lee, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan inspecting Kwai Chung Estate on January 23, 2022. File photo: GovHK.

The move came after Lee and other top officials met mainland representatives in an emergency meeting on Saturday. Lee told reporters afterwards that there would be no mainland China-style city-wide lockdown “at present” in Hong Kong.

Children in isolation

Health officials told the press on Sunday that those with severe symptoms, the elderly and children would be prioritised in the allocation of isolation beds, but that it would difficult to allocate beds to children’s parents, too.

Larry Lee, chief manager (integrated clinical services) at the Hospital Authority, addressed the issues as a “complication.”

“At the moment, many in hospitals are families, children maybe with parents, but the number of patients makes putting all of them into hospitals a difficulty,” Lee said.

At the same briefing, Chuang Shuk-kwan, the head of the Communicable Disease Branch of the Centre for Health Protection, reported that 4 per cent of Covid-19 patients were under the age of four currently. Cases among children were rare until the fifth-wave outbreak.

Hospital Authority Larry Lee
Larry Lee, chief manager (integrated clinical services) at the Hospital Authority. File photo: Video screenshot, via RTHK.

Among them, Chuang said a three-year-old girl – who was hospitalised on Saturday and who has tested preliminary positive – was in a critical condition and had been sent to intensive care.

Speaking on RTHK on Monday morning, Lau Yu-lung, chair professor at the Department of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in the University of Hong Kong, said authorities should not put all children in isolation wards without their parents “in a clean cut,” for fear of mentally traumatising the younger patients.

Lau said the conditions of young patients “would only be worsened” if they were sent to hospitals on their own. “The child feeling protected, having a sense of safety, being close with a parent, mainly the mother, is of utmost importance in treating a child,” Lau said.

He said home quarantine and treatment could be offered to infected children with no underlying conditions, provided that the home environment was “ideal” and doctors could offer daily consultation sessions through video conferencing.

Lau Yu-lung
Lau Yu-lung (left). File photo: GovHK.

In the same radio programme, Derrick Au, the director of the Centre for Bioethics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said if children were quarantined at home, parents might “feel helpless” and it would be difficult for them to take care of infected children. Au said he believed that to be the reason the Hospital Authority was prioritising children.

Jabs for children

From Tuesday, children aged three and above will be able to receive China’s Sinovac jab, while those aged five and over can take the German-developed BioNTech vaccine starting from Wednesday.

Lau said he was “happy” about the government’s decision to lower the Sinovac vaccine age limit to three. He said some 100 million doses of Sinovac has been received by people aged three to 11 globally and “there is no doubt” about its safety.

However, Lau said there was insufficient data supporting the use of BioNTech, even if the dose was reduced, for children between three to five years old.

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File photo: GovHK.

Lau urged authorities to organise out-reach medical teams to vaccinate children at kindergartens and primary schools “as soon as possible.”

As of Sunday, Hong Kong has detected 22,980 Covid-19 cases and 219 deaths.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.