Checkout reveals holes in Wuhan virus control

Top News | Jane Cheung 7 Jan 2020

A 45-year-old mainland woman from Wuhan with respiratory infection symptoms refused to stay in a Hong Kong hospital despite the serious-level alert for a still-unidentified strain of the disease.

But there was no way she could be forced to stay.

News of the visitor discharging herself sparked fears about the effectiveness of Hong Kong's preparedness plans for the mystery pneumonia that has sickened 59 mainlanders in the capital city of Hubei province.

The Department of Health confirmed the case last night while the Hospital Authority said the visitor was in stable condition before she left the hospital, adding she tested negative for common viral infections including influenza.

Mainland authorities have yet to identify the virus causing the pneumonia that was likened to severe acute respiratory syndrome - now ruled out - so people cannot be made to stay in hospital.

Still, seven more Hongkongers who visited Wuhan in the past two weeks were isolated in public hospitals after contracting a respiratory infection, taking the total number to 24 as of yesterday.

The seven included a two-year-old boy, a five-year-old girl and three adults aged 20 to 65.

Five were cleared of harboring the mystery virus. Instead, they tested positive for flu and a simple virus.

The other two are female mainland students from Lee Woo Sing College of the Chinese University. They were sent to a public hospital last night by ambulancemen in full protective gear.

Only one of them showed symptoms of respiratory infection.

The woman who rejected a hospital stay arrived on Saturday, saying she visited Wuhan the day before. She fell ill on Sunday and went to the accident and emergency department at Ruttonjee Hospital in Wan Chai.

She had cough and a runny nose, and X-rays showed a slight shadow on her left lung.

The woman claimed she had not been to wet markets in Wuhan - the likely breeding grounds for the virus - and insisted on leaving an isolation ward at Ruttonjee to care for her daughter.

Still, she appeared to have recovered by the time she left on Sunday night.

Under the Prevention and Control of Disease Regulation, health officers of the Department of Health can issue an order to keep a person in isolation if they are believed to be infected with a specified infectious disease.

This came after the global outbreak of SARS - first described as "atypical pneumonia" - in 2003.

Super-spreaders carried SARS from Guangzhou to the Metropole Hotel, Prince of Wales Hospital and Amoy Garden in Kowloon Bay before its cause - a novel coronavirus - was identified.

What became feared as SARS sickened 1,755 people in Hong Kong and 299 died.

Ho Pak-leung, an infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong, said Hong Kong authorities had to prevent the disease from breaking out in the community.

"Hong Kong has frequent exchanges with the mainland and it's impossible to completely block everyone from the mainland to prevent the disease from getting into Hong Kong," he said on radio.

"Our focus should be preventing [individuals] turning into super-spreaders."

Civic Party legislator Kwok Ka-ki will file a question in the Legislative Council on the official preparedness plan.

And yesterday he called for Wuhan stations to be skipped by the two daily express trains from the mainland to Hong Kong.

Instead, he said, there should be separate trains for direct rides between Wuhan and Hong Kong so SAR authorities can implement specific health-control measures.

At Chinese University, meanwhile, a dormitory was disinfected and special accommodation arrangements adopted after a student returned from Wuhan with a respiratory infection.

But the 20-year-old student, who lives in Bethlehem Hall, has been cleared of the disease. She had a common cold.

A university spokesman said the student returned to Hong Kong from Wuhan on December 29 and fell sick on Saturday.

She went to a private hospital on Sunday morning and to a Shenzhen hospital in the afternoon. She returned to the dormitory that night and was sent to Prince of Wales Hospital with her roommate.

jane.cheung@singtaonewscorp.com

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