Three microbiologists from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) – including government expert advisor Yuen Kwok-yung – have said Covid-19 mitigation measures are “necessary,” adding that the city is not equipped to successfully carry out universal testing.

Yuen Kwok-yung.
Yuen Kwok-yung. Photo: RTHK screenshot via Facebook.

Ming Pao published an article on Thursday co-authored by Yuen, David Christopher Lung and Siddharth Sridhar from the Department of Microbiology at HKU’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine. The trio urged the government to release a roadmap to resume normality as soon as possible “to let the public regain confidence and hope in Hong Kong.”

They said that, despite the speed of transmission and surge in cases caused by Omicron, “it seems that [Covid-19 cases] have already peaked on March 4 and gradually become stable” – a sign that social distancing measures were effective.

However, according to the microbiologists, even if the outbreak starts to diminish, daily infections may remain in the thousands in the final stages of the fifth wave – a period that “can last for a few months.” They said it is “necessary to implement certain mitigation measures” as a result.

They urged the authorities to proactively administer Covid-19 jabs to elderly people door to-door, saying that the city could begin to resume normality and relax social distancing restrictions around July if the overall vaccination rate exceeds 95 per cent.

By then, they said, the vaccine pass scheme should be in effect for all public transport and schools to “protect” the unvaccinated from contracting the disease at these venues.

Carrie Lam
Chief Executive Carrie Lam meeting the press on March 17. Photo: Video screenshot, via RTHK.

During Thursday morning’s daily briefing, the Chief Executive Carrie Lam said fewer people have been receiving their first Covid-19 jabs lately, as the remaining unvaccinated group “may have a strong stance and insist on not getting jabs.”

Lam said that if the trend continues, there will still be a “long way to go” to achieve the 95 per cent vaccination rate suggested by Yuen [and other experts].

Mitigation measures

As of now, the experts said it is “completely unnecessary” to insist on sending all mild Covid-19 patients to community isolation facilities, and the government should continue to allow them to undergo quarantine at home.

They said it would then allow manpower and resources to be redirected towards those in need, including patients who live with unvaccinated elderly people, children or family members with underlying diseases.

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They also said that large swathes of the working population being listed as close contacts of Covid cases is “severely affecting the operation of the society.” They suggested that close contacts could resume work as long as they conduct rapid tests daily and wear two masks or an N95 mask.

In addition, to avoid wasting quarantine hotel slots, they advised authorities to allow Hong Kong residents returning from overseas to self-isolate at home instead.

Not ready for universal testing

After mixed messaging from officials quoted anonymously in the press prompted panic buying, Lam said last week that citywide compulsory testing was “not a priority” but “preparation work and planning” were still ongoing.

Nevertheless, the HKU microbiologists said that – if citywide compulsory testing is to be enforced – it would “depend on whether logistics, testing work flow, tracing capability and quarantine facilities [among other complimentary measures] are ready.”

They said “the fifth wave is very likely to rebound” if the city’s contact tracing ability and isolation facilities fail to deal with the large number of cases unveiled by compulsory universal testing, adding that citizens who are already in pandemic fatigue would be “very disappointed” if another wave of Covid emerges after “such a large-scale and expensive” testing scheme.

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As of Wednesday, the city has reported 975,212 Covid-19 infections and 4,847 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.