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Babies among hundreds in Hong Kong quarantine amid outbreak


Hong Kong sent hundreds of people, including a playgroup of infants, into quarantine and locked down residential areas as it tried to contain a coronavirus outbreak that began in a gym near the city center last week.

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The number of confirmed cases linked to Ursus Fitness in Sai Ying Pun rose 13 on Monday to a total of 122, making it the city's second-biggest cluster after one in November that was centered on dance halls. The Health Department said at a press conference that 860 close contacts of those infected have been sent to quarantine. Separately, the government said it would expand eligibility criteria so that more people could get vaccinated.

A group of eight 11- to 18-month-old babies and their caregivers were among those quarantined, according to parents. The measure was taken after the children attended a music playgroup last week, and a parent was later confirmed positive in connection to the gym cluster.

Dozens of offices are testing staff for the virus and several pricey international schools halted in-person classes. The outbreak also hit the U.S. consulate, which closed Monday for deep cleaning after two staff members tested positive, according to a statement. The consulate said it is speaking with the "highest levels" of the Hong Kong government about its approach to the outbreak, particularly the possible separation of children from parents.

Kylie Davies-Worley, a mother in quarantine with her husband and 15-month-old son, said conditions at the center may be bearable for adults, but "it's just really not equipped for children."

"The menu is definitely not baby appropriate -- no designated baby food at all," she said. "He literally will be living on snacks for the next 10 days."

Hospital Authority Chief Manager Linda Yu said at a briefing Sunday she needed more information on the quarantined infants before commenting. Health Department official Albert Au also said more time was needed for observation given the disease's incubation period of 14 days.

Davies-Worley said her room at Penny's Bay on Lantau Island has two single beds, a foldable table and small bathroom. There is a television and one kettle, but no fridge and they had to bring their own cot for the baby, she said.

"We are still seeing examples of separation and the quarantine facilities are a one-size-fits-all," said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor in health security at City University of Hong Kong. "This is understandable in the early phase of the outbreak, when there was a scramble to build facilities as fast as possible. Now that more time has elapsed, there is scope for more targeted facilities to be developed. It is a similar issue for the elderly."

Among residential areas locked down Sunday for Covid testing were buildings near Ursus Fitness on Pok Fu Lam Road and Dynasty Court in Mid-Levels. Two preliminary positive cases were found at Dynasty Court as of midnight, and the lockdown of five blocks at the high-end residential development was lifted at 8:40 a.m. Monday.

As of 2 a.m. Monday, 680 residents in Pok Fu Lam Road buildings had been tested and no confirmed Covid-19 cases found, the government said in a statement. Another lockdown on Saturday night covered four buildings in Mid-Levels. That ended early Sunday with no positive cases.

The government also said Sunday that some students and staff at the Harbour School in Ap Lei Chau would be sent to government quarantine facilities after two confirmed cases and one preliminary case were found among school members. The students are between eight and 10 years old, the school said.

Hong Kong has one of the strictest quarantine regimes in the world, requiring all who've had close contact with infected people to enter mandatory isolation for as long as two weeks. The quarantining of children comes despite studies showing that younger people don't tend to be the main drivers of transmission. Children under 10 also may be less susceptible to infection.

Offices housing UBS Group, Chanel Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific Airways and Standard Chartered are included on the list of buildings where people are subject to compulsory testing orders. Morgan Stanley's office appeared on the list Monday.

Several banks last week advised staff not to come into offices. HSBC Holdings vacated a floor of its main building Thursday after an employee tested preliminary positive, according to a memo to staff. UBS told some staff to work from home after an employee tested positive, while Goldman Sachs Group reverted to a policy of 50% of staff working from home.​

The outbreak also affected legal firms, with Allen & Overy and Herbert Smith Freehills both closing their offices after employees tested positive. Clifford Chance asked staff to work remotely out of an "abundance of caution."

Hong Kong began its public vaccination campaign at the end of February, prioritizing people aged 60 and older, health-care staff and other essential workers. From Tuesday, residents aged 30 to 59 can also sign up for vaccines, as well as domestic helpers and students who are 16 or older if they are studying overseas. That means 5.5 million people will be able to sign up for vaccinations, more than 70% of the population.

"Now is a key time point," Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said Monday. "We need all citizens to actively participate in the vaccination program."

Vaccination rates in Hong Kong have slowed amid concern over side effects from Sinovac Biotech's shot, with reports of at least six deaths among the more than 150,000 people inoculated. None of the deaths have been linked to the Chinese company's vaccine, but they've added to hesitancy and the growing no-show rate for appointments to get Sinovac immunizations.

"Until there is a high level of vaccine acceptance, the unpredictable potential for a super-spreader event is always going to be possible," City University's Thomas said. "Even after Hongkongers get vaccinated, the challenge is then going to be how and to what extent the economy should be re-opened to international arrivals who may be coming from less well vaccinated countries."

Published : March 16, 2021

By : Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Jinshan Hong, Natalie Lung