Hong Kong confirmed 6,116 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday – another record daily high as health authorities evaded questions about compulsory city-wide testing reported by local media.

Caritas Medical Centre in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.

Among the new infections, 3,366 were suspected to be of the more infectious Omicron variant, the Centre for Health Protection’s Chuang Shuk-kwan said at a press conference. Nine were imported infections, whilst the rest originated locally.

Authorities are also looking at around 6,300 preliminary positive cases.

Under Secretary for Food and Health Chui Tak-yi said the city has recorded over 16,600 Covid-19 infections since January, meaning that the number of cases since the fifth wave began has exceeded the total figure for 2020 and 2021.

“The rapid rise in cases has presented immense challenge to the anti-epidemic work,” Chui said. “The government is doing its best to address bottlenecks, including in relation to testing and quarantine.”

Another 15 Covid-19 patients succumbed to the virus over the past 24 hours, authorities said.

Stay at isolation facilities halved

With the outbreak overwhelming the city’s Covid-19 facilities, Chui said authorities would reduce the duration of stay for patients at community isolation facilities such as Penny’s Bay.

Patients who test negative after seven days of their confirmed diagnosis will be allowed to complete the remaining seven days at home if their living conditions allow, meaning they do not stay with family members who are elderly or are otherwise considered high-risk. Previously, patients had to wait 14 days.

Penny’s Bay Covid-19 quarantine centre on Lantau. File photo: GovHK.

Hospital stays will also be shortened. If a Covid-19 patient tests negative and is assessed by a doctor to have no risk of spreading the virus, they can go home seven days after initially testing positive. They must then isolate at home for another seven days.

“We are dealing with a large number of cases,” Chui said. “We must increase the turnover rate at hospitals and isolation facilities so that those in need can get the necessary help.

Chui Tak-yi. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Photos have gone viral in recent days of Covid-19 patients – many of whom are elderly – waiting on gurneys outside packed hospitals. The temperature dipped below 15 degrees Celsius on Wednesday and Thursday and is set to dive further into the weekend.

“We are aware that patients have been waiting outside. We will take care of them and make sure they are warm,” Sara Ho, a chief manager at the Hospital Authority (HA), said during the Thursday press conference.

Caritas Medical Centre in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.

Some patients waiting outdoors have been transferred to other hospitals. Ho added that the HA is also in discussions with other departments to designate temporary indoor spaces where patients can wait.

No clarity on reported city-wide testing

Meanwhile, local media reported the possibility of city-wide compulsory testing, though it is unclear whether the government has made a decision to go forward with the scheme yet.

Headline Daily and HK01 cited sources as saying that authorities had already planned to conduct mandatory testing for all Hong Kong residents from March, with tests carried out in batches according to identity card numbers.

Asked by multiple reporters at the press conference whether there was such a plan, Chui did not answer directly: “The government has tried different measures since the start of the epidemic… but as for what the next step will be, what direction Covid-19 testing will take, I believe the government will announce it at an appropriate time,” he said.

Covid-19 testing booths in Lei Tung, Sha Tin. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP

Hong Kong’s Covid-19 outbreak, which remained largely under control last year, took a sharp turn in late December. Authorities responded by enforcing strict social distancing restrictions, such as a restaurant dine-in ban after 6 p.m. and the closure of gyms and beauty salons.

The measures were further tightened last Thursday, when Hong Kong enforced a two-person limit in public and forbid more than two households from gathering in private premises.

But the rules have failed to curb the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has maintained that Hong Kong will not adopt a “living with Covid-19” approach, which treats Covid as an endemic disease like the seasonal flu. The city is instead aligning its strategy with mainland China in an attempt to eliminate the virus’ spread.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.