Hong Kong third wave: city confirms 95 new Covid-19 cases, as expert urges testing of domestic helpers in boarding houses

Hong Kong confirmed 95 new Covid-19 infections on Thursday, the fourth straight day with fewer than 100, as a leading infectious disease expert called for large-scale testing of domestic helpers living in boarding houses, warning the city must act fast to avoid a similar outbreak to the one that swept through Singapore.

All but four of the new cases were locally transmitted, while 52 were linked to previously confirmed infections.

Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, said authorities were still tracking the source of 39 infections, while another 60 city residents had tested preliminary positive on Thursday, pending confirmation. The city has logged 3,849 confirmed cases so far.

The government, meanwhile, is racing to locate at-risk domestic workers who shared accommodation with an infected helper before going to live with their employers.

Chuang said the Indonesian national who tested positive on Tuesday also spent a night in a dormitory managed by Sunlight Employment Agency in North Point along with 13 other helpers, all of whom will now be tested for the virus.

But she admitted authorities had made a mistake on Wednesday due to a “communication problem”, incorrectly stating the 28 other helpers who lived with her in Wan Chai had already gone to their respective employers’ homes. In fact, only one had done so and all 28 had been contacted, according to Chuang. Five maids who used the toilet on the same floor as the Indonesian patient, however, will now be tested as well.

The health official also revealed that another Indonesian helper, who had stayed with four to six others on July 1 and 31 in Sheung Wan’s Kin On commercial building before going to work for a new employer on August 1, was among Thursday’s preliminary positive cases.

Chuang said the patient developed a fever on August 4 and was accompanied to the accident and emergency department by her employers, and was undergoing quarantine at the Holiday Inn Express Hong Kong Kowloon East Hotel in Tseung Kwan O when the test result came back.

An 85-year-old patient at Tuen Mun Hospital, meanwhile, became the city’s 44th death related to the virus, according to the Hospital Authority. The latest fatality suffered from a chronic illness and became the sixth resident of Cornwall Elderly’s Home (Golden Branch) in Tuen Mun to die, a cluster that has seen 39 infections tied to it to date.

The city’s third wave of Covid-19 infections has so far hit 17 elderly homes, with the most serious cluster at the Kong Tai Care for the Aged Centre Limited, which has recorded 45 cases and nine deaths.

The latest figures came as the government announced that civil servants, with the exception of emergency and essential workers, would continue to work from home for at least another week, until August 16.

Earlier in the day, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung, a frequent advocate of tough anti-pandemic measures, said an urgent response was required, referring also to the Indonesian national who tested positive on Tuesday.

Ho suggested testing all domestic helpers staying in agents’ accommodation.

“The virus won’t wait for you, and the government needs to do it fast to avoid an outbreak in this type of accommodation, like the situation in Singapore before,” he said on a radio programme.

In April, a second wave in Singapore was largely driven by an outbreak among migrant workers living in crowded accommodation. By August, nearly 50,000 out of the 330,000 migrant workers had contracted the virus.

Ho estimated there were about 7,000 helpers living in agents’ accommodation in Hong Kong. Given that infected domestic workers might hang out with other maids on their days off, there was an urgency to carry out such tests.

“To avoid possible violation of the two-people public gathering ban, police should patrol these areas where the helpers hang out, and if they stay as a group, police should raise a blue warning flag to disperse them,” he said.

Ho also criticised the government, saying it should have foreseen such an outbreak.

Eni Lestari, a spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, has appealed to Hongkongers not to use this episode to discriminate against the city’s 400,000 helpers.

Appearing on the same radio programme as Ho, Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers’ Association, said some employers were worried about their helpers going out on their day’s off.

“The employers cannot forbid their helpers to go out, they can only remind them to take adequate preventive measures and to abide by the public gathering rules,” she said.