Hong Kong health officials have said that a rise in Covid-19 cases was expected, while experts have urged the focus to be placed on the severity of infections, rather than daily numbers, as more cases of Omicron subvariants were identified.

Medics wearing infection prevention gear when taking care of patients outside Prince of Wales Hospital. File photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

According to the Centre for Health Protection (CHP), the city currently has over 40 untraceable infections caused by the Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1 – a similar strain to Omicron BA.2, the variant that triggered Hong Kong’s fifth-wave outbreak earlier this year.

The health authority added that there were two more suspected local infections of Omicron BA.4 or BA.5, which were both thought to have a higher capability of re-infecting recovered Covid-19 patients.

In total, Hong Kong reported 737 new Covid-19 infections but no related deaths on Monday.

Albert Au, the principal medical and health officer of the CHP, told media during Monday’s daily press briefing that Omicron BA.2.12.1 have been found across 15 districts, and he believed that there was a certain level of invisible transmission in the community.

Earlier this month, the CHP announced that people infected with these new subvariants and their close contacts were no longer allowed to self-isolate at home and had to be quarantined at government facilities.

Albert Au. File photo: Video screenshot, via RTHK.

Although the city’s Covid-19 case counts have increased over the past two weeks, Au said the trend was “as expected.”

“We have [loosened] some social distancing measures, and people are resuming their normal life, and there are more and more interactions between people and also more gatherings,” Au said.

Meanwhile, he said the CHP had not noted any continuous increase in the rates of death, hospitalisation or severe disease, all of which indicate the level of burden placed on the medical system.

David Hui. File photo: GovHK.

Au said this could be related to a high level of herd immunity among Hongkongers, but warned that people’s immunity after infection may wane within three to four months, and they should still receive vaccinations.

Focus on severity

Local respiratory medicine expert and government advisor David Hui told HKFP that the fifth wave had not yet ended because of the Omicron subtypes, adding that it was “inappropriate” to talk about “the sixth wave,” which he said would only occur when a new variant emerged.

“Singapore has recorded around 3,000 daily cases in recent weeks and no reporter would ask about a new wave,” Hui said.

Ben Cowling. Photo: University of Hong Kong.

Instead, Hui said the focus should be on the number of critical or severe cases, as well as Covid-related deaths, in the city. To which, Hui said Hong Kong had built up a “reasonable immunity defence” due to the rising vaccination rate.

University of Hong Kong epidemiologist Ben Cowling also told HKFP that the severity of infections – as well as the case counts – should be considered when determining if the spread of BA.2.12.1 in the city was a concern.

But Cowling said the subvariant “does pose a threat to public health” as it could reinfect those who have recovered once immunity had faded within three to six months.

Moving forward, Cowling said the authorities should prioritise raising the vaccination coverage of the most vulnerable, namely elderly residents who had not been vaccinated or infected in previous outbreaks.

He said he was “not sure” if stringent social distancing measures such as school suspensions over a prolonged period could continue to be justified in any forthcoming Covid-19 waves.

“We saw from the fifth wave that [these stringent measures] could not stop the outbreak but slow it down,” Cowling said, but added that the government could consider them when it was two to three weeks around the peak of the outbreak.

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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.