Public hospitals in Hong Kong are considering cutting non-emergency services to make room for increasing numbers of Covid-19 patients, as a microbiologist warned that hospitals will not be able to cope if they continue to admit a large number of mild cases.

Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin. File photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Speaking during the routine Covid-19 press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, the Chief Manager (Quality and Standards) of the Hospital Authority Lau Ka-hin said that Covid-related hospital admissions were expected to rise as more people were infected by Omicron subvariants. Both BA.4 or BA.5 are more transmissible than previous strains.

According to the Hospital Authority, a total of 1,813 Covid-19 patients were staying in public hospitals on Tuesday, compared to 1,546 a week ago. There were 254 newly admitted cases, while only 176 were discharged. Nine Covid patients were in intensive care.

Lau said hospitals were now considering postponing some non-emergency services to vacate 2,500 to 5,000 beds for Covid-19 patients.

“It is a very simple calculation. When there are two hundred patients diagnosed and admitted to the hospital, and they stay for, say, 10 days, we need 2,000 beds,” Lau said.

According to Lau, examples of non-emergency services that might be impacted included surgeries, endoscopies and radiological examinations that were elective. Hospitals would maintain all emergency and essential services.

The chief manager, however, did not specify when the adjustments will take place.

Unsustainable admissions system

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Siddharth Sridhar said on Twitter on Monday that the Hospital Authority “cannot cope” if it continued to hospitalise mild Covid-19 cases and isolate them in negative pressure facilities “hijacked from normal hospital areas.”

“I think the way forward is to deal with [Covid-19] in hospitals like bad winter flu surges in the past,” he said, adding that, in the past, routine operations were maintained during even the worst flu seasons.

Covid-related deaths

Leung Pak-yin, the former chief executive of the Hospital Authority, questioned how Hong Kong health authorities count Covid-related deaths. At present, anyone who dies within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 is included in the city’s Covid death figures.

Leung wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that the current calculation method would “obstruct the accurate assessment of the pandemic situation,” as most Omicron patients recovered within 10 days.

In response, Albert Au, the principal medical and health officer of the Centre for Health Protection, said during Tuesday’s afternoon briefing that the actual cause of death could not be determined immediately, as reviews by doctors, and sometimes coroners, were necessary.

Au said the daily numbers released by the authorities were only “preliminary figures.” He said they were still important to illustrate lethal Covid-19 cases and the burden the coronavirus has placed on the healthcare system.

The health official added that the initial findings of the Hospital Authority suggested that around 70 per cent of Covid-related deaths in Hong Kong died from the coronavirus.

Hong Kong registered 5,162 new Covid-19 infections on Tuesday, of which 272 cases were imported. As of Monday, the city has reported a total of 1,421,918 cases and 9,569 related deaths.

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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.