Social distancing extended two weeks on 'super-spreader' fear

Top News | Jane Cheung 3 Jun 2020

Social distancing and an eight-person cap on group gatherings will be extended for 14 more days until June 18 after a new cluster emerged from the Kerry Logistics warehouse infections, the Secretary for Food and Health, Sophia Chan Siu-chee, said.

As the Covid-19 pandemic is "in flux," Chan also announced the compulsory 14-day quarantine for arrivals from the mainland, Macau and Taiwan will be extended for a month until July 7, and for overseas arrivals for three months until September 18.

The Kerry Logistics cluster is growing from a "super spreader" in the public housing Lek Yuen Estate in Sha Tin, with four residents found to be infected with the virus yesterday.

Chan said Covid-19 is expected to stay until an effective vaccine or treatment is developed and sporadic cases or small outbreaks will occur in Hong Kong from time to time.

The legal framework for the ban on singing and dancing performances, steam baths and saunas at premises and the eight-person cap for group gatherings, set to expire at the end of the month, will be extended until August 31.

Chan said the extension of social restrictions was made solely on public health grounds. That was in response to media questions about whether the gathering cap was targeting rallies as anti-fugitive protests will mark their first anniversary next Tuesday.

The annual June Fourth vigil at Victoria Park tomorrow to mark the Tiananmen Square incident has been banned for the first time in 30 years, with police citing the same coronavirus concerns.

Chan said yesterday: "Of course protests and demonstrations are large-scale gatherings, but we're also banning other types of large-scale assemblies such as sports contests. We don't mean to take away citizens' freedom to express their opinions."

But Chan said the government will introduce a new system to evaluate the pandemic situations in different countries and regions so it can relax border restrictions on safer countries after risk assessment.

She said the SAR has also been discussing with Guangdong province and Macau a mutual recognition system to waive quarantine requirements on people who need to travel frequently among the three regions.

The Deputy Secretary for Food and Health, Howard Chan Wai-kee, said the three governments agreed on lifting quarantine on travelers who have tested negative for the coronavirus seven days before they cross the border. Chan said details have yet to be confirmed and announcements will be made accordingly.

On the new cluster involving nine people, including three workers of Kerry Logistics' warehouse in Kwai Chung, one of whom is a 34-year-old woman living in Luk Chuen House, four more residents were confirmed with Covid-19.

The Centre for Health Protection is testing all 1,200 residents of the building.

The four new cases were all women, 57 to 78, living in four separate units on the 7th, 8th and 10th floors of Luk Chuen House. Two of them live on the 8th floor, the same as the 34-year-old and her husband, who on Sunday was also diagnosed with the infection.

Authorities have decided against evacuating residents after experts inspected the building and did not find any architectural defects in the sewerage system.

"We've taken samples from toilet pipes of patients' units but all of them were tested negative for the virus," said the head of the Communicable Disease Branch, Chuang Shuk-kwan.

But everyone in the same block as confirmed patients are required to test for the virus.

So far 1,000 sampling bottles have been distributed, and 700 returned to the government, she said.

"Apart from the four confirmed cases, all were tested negative," she said.

After visiting the public housing estate on Monday night, government adviser Yuen Kwok-yung from the University of Hong Kong said he believed the infection could arise from contact in common areas such as lift buttons and door handles.

"The 34-year-old patient works an overnight shift," he said. "She may have weak immunity. That's why she was seriously infected. She may become a super spreader."

Another government adviser, David Hui Shu-cheong, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: "The couple (the 34-year-old and her husband, 56) have very high viral loads and it's very likely they spread the coronavirus to a number of people, who contracted the disease from contamination in the environment."

Apart from the Luk Chuen House cases, two others - a 15-year-old boy who returned from Pakistan and a 42-year-old woman who went to the quarantine center to take care of an elderly Pakistan returnee - were imported cases confirmed yesterday.

These took the city's tally to 1,094, including four deaths.

Meanwhile, tour agency WWPKG said it would cancel 10 tours to Shanghai and Beijing set to depart later this month due to the extension of mandatory quarantine measures.

It will refund 120 affected customers.

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