Hong Kong’s average Covid-19 case counts and related deaths tripled in December, as authorities abolished most Covid-19 restrictions and prepare to reopen the border with mainland China.

Meanwhile, a health expert has said people should not “be too worried” about the resumption of quarantine-free travel with the mainland as long as there are no significant mutations of the coronavirus.

Accident and Emergency A&E paramedics United Christian Hospital December 2022
Paramedics take a patient to the accident and emergency department at United Christian Hospital in Kwun Tong on December 21, 2022. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

According to data from the Centre for Health Protection, Hong Kong’s seven-day rolling average of Covid-related deaths more than tripled in December, rising from 16.4 on the first day of the month to 56.4 on New Year’s Eve.

The seven-day rolling average of reported infections also nearly tripled, from 8,582 on December 1 to 23,154 on the last day of the month.

The number of Covid-19 patients hospitalised daily nearly doubled as well. Hospital Authority data showed that the seven-day rolling average of daily Covid-19 hospitalisations increased from 340.7 at the beginning of December to 648.6 on December 31.

Chief Manager (Integrated Clinical Services) of the Hospital Authority Larry Lee told RTHK on Tuesday morning that accident and emergency (A&E) services at public hospitals had been “relatively congested” over the recent holiday period as private clinics were closed.

Lee said A&E departments at public hospitals had treated more 4,000 patients daily over the past few days, with the waiting time reaching six to eight hours.

Travel resumption concerns

The Hospital Authority has already planned for a potential increase in demand for services following the upcoming resumption of quarantine-free travel between the city and mainland China. Chief Secretary for Administration Eric Chan said the border could reopen as soon as this Sunday.

“We will prioritise providing medical services and medicine for Hong Kong residents,” Lee said.

Speaking at the same radio programme, Leo Poon of the University of Hong Kong’s Division of Public Health Laboratory Sciences said he had not observed any “abnormalities” with the Covid-19 variant data released by mainland authorities.

Shenzhen Bay Covid-19 border
Shenzhen Bay port. File Photo: GovHK.

The public health professor said the variants currently circulating in mainland – Omicron BF.7 and BA.5.2 – could also be found in Hong Kong and overseas.

“As long as [mainland’s] virus strains are similar to those in foreign countries or Hong Kong, the risk should not be too great… there’s no need for the public to be too worried.” Poon said.

But Poon said the actual number of infections and booster vaccines administered in the mainland remained unclear.

When asked about the potential pressure on the city’s hospitals, Poon said Hong Kong already had many local cases and it was important to better control local transmission.

“But of course, as we are starting to live with the virus, we need to focus on how to gradually relax restrictions so that we can… live our life normally.” Poon added.

Hong Kong relaxed most of its anti-epidemic measures in December, including PCR tests for international arrivals and group gathering limits. However, mask wearing remains mandatory, including outside, and people who report a Covid infection to authorities are subject to an isolation order.

Hoarding of medicine

Hong Kong residents have been emptying shelves of medicine containing paracetamol, with the city’s two major pharmacy chains – Mannings and Watsons – imposing purchasing limits on fever and cold relief products.

Accident and Emergency A&E paramedics United Christian Hospital December 2022 2
The accident and emergency department at United Christian Hospital in Kwun Tong on December 21, 2022. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The Health Bureau said in a Monday statement that the supply of medicine containing paracetamol in Hong Kong “remains stable” and there was no need for people to stockpile it.

The health authority added that it had sufficient stock in the public healthcare system and it was planning to reserve more for patients in need, such as low-income families or people who were unable to buy it “due to regional shortages.”

According to the statement, member of the public were urged to avoid stockpiling medicines, including those containing paracetamol. “There is also no need for them to panic buy certain brand of medicine,” the statement read.

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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.