Hong Kong’s public hospitals have been forced to leave the unrefrigerated bodies of patients in accident and emergency departments, corridors or even outdoors, as the city’s fifth wave of Covid-19 infections continues to overwhelm the public health system. An acute surge in infections and deaths in recent days has seen morgues and mortuaries reach their maximum capacities.

On Monday alone, the city reported 34,466 new Covid-19 infections and 87 deaths, bringing the death toll to more than 400 in the past week. Hong Kong recorded 51,536 deaths in 2021, according to the Census and Statistics Department, a weekly average of 988.

Bodies in A&E storage area in Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Photo: rn_aed_247, via Instagram.

Photographs uploaded to a public Instagram account for medics to anonymously share their experience in A&E facilities showed more than 10 bodies in tents outside the Caritas Medical Centre in Cheung Sha Wan. Another image shows five bodies in a storage area at the A&E department at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei.

Medical staff at different public hospitals told local media that morgues were overloaded.

A doctor at a public hospital in Kowloon, who asked to remain anonymous, told HKFP it is now not unusual for patients to be staying in a ward with a dead body for hours due to there being nowhere to move the corpses.

“My coworker said by the time she arrived for a morning shift, a patient who died in an isolation ward more than five hours ago was still lying there,” the doctor said.

On Sunday, Now News reported that a nurse at Kwong Wah Hospital in Yai Ma Tei said there were 20 bodies inside the A&E room, and sometimes bodies were placed in corridors when there were too many of them.

An A&E nurse at Queen Elizabeth Hospital told Ming Pao that bodies were “piling over each other” in the morgue and some had to be placed in the A&E room for over eight hours.

Bodies in outdoor tents at Caritas Medical Centre. Photo: rn_aed_247, via Instagram.

Speaking at Sunday afternoon’s daily Covid-19 briefing, Chief Manager (Quality and Standards) of the Hospital Authority Lau Ka-hin said morgues at public hospitals could store more than 3,000 bodies, but they were already operating near their capacities.

He said the bodies in A&E areas were pending transfer to the Department of Health’s public mortuaries and the Hospital Authority had spoken with relevant departments to speed up the transfer procedure.

At the same briefing, Albert Au, the Centre for Health Protection’s principle medical and health officer, said over 90 per cent of the total 1,350 places in the city’s three public mortuaries were already in use.

Measures loosened as outbreak worsens

The rapid surge in Covid-19 cases has overloaded the city’s testing and quarantine facilities and introduced a severe backlog in the health authorities’ daily reporting of confirmed cases. Until recently, Hong Kong required samples to undergo a second round of testing at government laboratories so that positive samples sent by private testing providers could be verified. The results of rapid antigen tests were not accepted.

But last Friday, the government announced it would start to accept rapid antigen tests and set up an online system for citizens to self-register their positive results, citing the “immense pressure” the upsurge of the epidemic had put on nucleic acid testing facilities. Private testing companies were no longer required to submit their specimens for verification either.

A queue for a Covid-19 test in Lei Tung, Sha Tin, on February 5, 2022. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Citizens who received compulsory testing orders issued by the authorities were allowed to conduct their own rapid tests instead of visiting one of the community testing centres.

As a result, 19 testing stations across the city ceased operations on Saturday.

Don’t visit A&E with mild or no symptoms

Health officials have urged Covid-positive citizens with mild or no symptoms not to visit A&E departments at public hospitals.

Instead, there are designated Covid-19 clinics offering consultation and treatment for those who have tested positive and have mild or no symptoms. Reservations must be made and transportation to and from these clinics is taken care of by a specialised fleet of taxis.

Those who test positive using a rapid antigen test should report their positive result and stay at home until they are picked up to be taken to hospitals or isolation facilities. The quarantine period for Covid-19 patients and their close contacts has been shortened to seven days, providing they have received two or more jabs and test negative on both the sixth and seventh day of their quarantine.

A designated quarantine hotel in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Nevertheless, all in-bound travellers are still required to undergo 14 days of hotel quarantine, and if any test positive, they will be sent to hospital for isolation, CHP’s Albert Au told reporters on Sunday afternoon.

In addition, citing a bottleneck in the city’s testing capacity, health officials said Hong Kong’s contact tracing mobile app LeaveHomeSafe has stopped sending alerts to its users.

At the moment, Hong Kong is building eight community isolation or treatment centres with the mainland’s aid. According to Chinese state-media Xinhua, the construction of the temporary medical centre in Tsing Yi will be completed by Monday and will provide over 3,800 beds.

The city has recorded at least 205,780 infections and 841 deaths in public hospitals since the beginning of the pandemic over two years ago.

Possible citywide lockdown

Meanwhile, as Hong Kong authorities plan for the the upcoming compulsory universal Covid-19 testing in March, and Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said a citywide lockdown was “under discussion.”

When asked about the testing scheme during an appearance on Commercial Radio on Monday morning, Chan said the “overall principle” was to reduce the flow of people to stop transmission and achieve the greatest effect of universal testing. “As to what degree [we will] reduce the flow of people, we have been studying,” Chan said.

Earlier, Chief Executive Carrie Lam had said banning people from going out was “unrealistic,” when reporters asked about whether the compulsory universal tests would be coupled with a citywide lockdown.

Sophia Chan. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Chan also said some testing samples collected during the mass testing would “certainly” be sent to mainland China for testing. “The current available testing capacity in Hong Kong would not be able to handle [the universal testing,] therefore at least certainly some or all [specimens] – which we are deciding – will be taken to the mainland for tests.”

Additional reporting: Hillary Leung.

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Peter Lee

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.