Friday marked the 14th day of Ms. Lai’s stay at Hong Kong’s Penny’s Bay Covid-19 quarantine centre, but the 55-year-old housewife says she has not been told when she will be released, despite having two negative rapid test results.

“I expected I could remain passive when I first arrived – but it seems that, if you don’t try to reach out, no one is there to take care of you,” Lai told HKFP on Friday afternoon.

Lai's quarantine room
The inside of a room at Penny’s Bay quarantine centre. Photo: Supplied.

Hong Kong’s fifth wave of Covid-19 has been infecting thousands daily and has put medical and isolation facilities over their maximum capacity. There are now around 1,000 patients at Penny’s Bay on Lantau Island, according to the Hospital Authority’s (HA) Lau Ka-hin on Friday.

Ms. Lai said she was sent to Penny’s Bay on February 12 after receiving a message that she had tested positive on February 7.

From Feb 25, HKFP will report the government’s more accurate “total reported cases” instead of the “confirmed cases.” Reported cases reflect all positive Covid-19 test results submitted to the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) from gov’t & private labs over the past 24 hrs. Previously, “confirmed cases” were verified by the CHP after they were submitted by laboratories and remain severely backlogged.

The authorities require all residents at the isolation facility to submit body temperature readings daily as part of health declarations. Nevertheless, Lai said the documents she received when she was first quarantined had no mention of the rule.

Lai said she had not obtained the QR code needed for handing over her declaration until a staffer called her four or five days into her quarantine, claiming that she had not been meeting the requirement.

Lai's quick test result (2)
Lai has been tested negative in Rapid Antigen Tests. Photo: Supplied.

She was only able to get her hands on a thermometer on February 18 – almost a week into her confinement.

HKFP has reached out to the Department of Health for comment.

Unanswered calls

On February 2, the city’s Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee wrote on his blog that the Department of Health had introduced a 24-hour hotline to handle enquiries from quarantined people about their exit arrangement.

However, according to Lai, it took hundreds of attempts to get through on the hotline.

She said that, one day, she had started calling the number repeatedly from around 8:30 a.m. until nightfall, but was not able to make contact.

Lai's quarantine food (2)
Lai received a rotten apple once in Penny’s Bay. Photo: Supplied.

Lai said she was calm at the beginning but started to feel her heart racing with frustration as she kept on making calls throughout the day: “I did it for two or three days, then I felt like I had some problems with myself… I felt a bit weird with my emotions and psychology – I was afraid that I was going crazy.”

She said she had given up dialling for a while, but then realised that “no one is going to help if I don’t call.”

On the few occasions that Lai got a response from the other end of the phone, she said the answers were always the same: “doctors will only look at the uploaded test results,” and “we will write that down and follow up later.”

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

She told HKFP that she wishes to go back to her 60-year-old husband and her son, who is around 30. Lai said her family members – who were classified as close contacts – had been eating only canned food and fried eggs during their 14-day home quarantine.

“It feels as if I am living in a madhouse, there is no one that I can get in touch with.”

Protests and attempted suicides

On Thursday, local media reported that 16 residents at the Penny’s Bay quarantine centre had left their rooms collectively in protest at around 1 p.m.

They said they were unhappy with the isolation camp’s chaotic arrangements and the delay of their scheduled release. According to InMedia, one of the protesters said he had already spent 26 days in three different quarantine facilities and was told that he could leave at 10 a.m.

Residents at isolation facilities should be allowed to leave after 14 days and after obtaining a negative Covid-19 test result, according to the HA.

After failing to persuade the 16 to go back in their rooms, staff eventually called the police. There was no confrontation, and the protesters were allowed to leave at around 5 p.m. after medical staff verified that they were all qualified to be released.

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

In response to HKFP’s enquiry, a spokesperson for the HA said that “some medical support provided in the medical posts were not timely,” due to the large number of patients and the fact that some supporting facilities were “not completely available at the initial stage of operation.”

The spokesman also said the overstays were results of “the large number of patients discharged from the community isolation facilities recently.”

HKFP was told that the HA and other responsible departments have been working to improve the isolation centre’s operations, including “enhancing the telephone hotline service, registration system and discharge arrangements,”

“The Hospital Authority hopes patients can understand the difficulties we are now facing,” the spokesperson said.

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

There were other cases of people expressing anger during their stay. Earlier on Wednesday, local media – including the Standard and Oriental Daily – reported that a man was sleeping outside his room in a corridor and saw it as a form of protest, saying the quarantine centre was “like a concentration camp” and “no one would know if I died.”

Two online clips uploaded on Wednesday also showed a woman outside of her room, running, punching and kicking a staff member, asking when she would be released.

Meanwhile, at least three other isolated people at the facility had either attempted suicide or said they wanted to end their lives, according to HK01 and other local media.

Glimmer of hope

After Thursday’s protest, Ms. Lai said she had started to see staff knocking on every door of a building opposite hers, registering residents’ details.

Lai's message (2)
The message Lai put up on her window to draw attention from staff. Photo: Supplied.

Lai then stuck a notice on her room’s window saying she had stayed for 14 days and tested twice negative. She said a staff saw her message, then came and asked for her details.

“The staff told me a nurse will approach me soon,” Lai said. “It was the first time I talked with a human [in 14 days.]”

💡If you are in need of support, please call: The Samaritans 2896 0000 (24-hour, multilingual), Suicide Prevention Centre 2382 0000 or the Social Welfare Department 2343 2255. The Hong Kong Society of Counselling and Psychology provides a WhatsApp hotline in English and Chinese: 6218 1084. See also: HKFP’s comprehensive guide to mental health services in Hong Kong.

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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.