Princess Margaret in virus crunch

Top News | Jane Cheung 5 Jan 2021

A 66-year-old woman being treated for cancer could have spread the coronavirus when she took off her mask during lunch at Princess Margaret Hospital's medical day ward.

A doctor, a nurse and three patients are known to have been infected at the public hospital in Kwai Chung, government adviser Yuen Kwok-yung said yesterday. The cluster prompted authorities to mandate testing for all medics, patients and visitors of the ward on the ground floor of blocks E and F at the hospital from December 28 to yesterday. At least 114 people have been identified as close and other contacts so far.

Yuen, a microbiologist with the University of Hong Kong, believed the outbreak started with the woman, who stayed in the ward for chemotherapy on December 28. And airborne transmission occurred when she took off her mask for 30 minutes during lunch.

"The woman has a high viral load and the virus could have traveled a short distance through air transmission," Yuen said.

The woman lives in Sham Shui Po with a family member who was later diagnosed with the virus and the building has also seen at least two units infected.

Yuen said the epidemic pressure on Princess Margaret is also very high as nine of some 40 buildings on the list for mandatory tests are near the hospital.

He said the cancer patient went to the day ward for an intravenous infusion for five-and-a-half hours, but as she was not an in-patient she was not required to go through a virus test.

He had a slight fever on a first temperature check, but Yuen said that was a typical symptom in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. A second check found her temperature normal. So she was allowed to stay in the day ward.

She developed shortness of breath the next day and was subsequently diagnosed with Covid-19. She was last night in a critical condition in the PMH intensive care unit.

Contact tracing found seven medical staff, 23 patients and two visitors were close contacts needing quarantine. Another 27 medics and 55 patients were listed as other contacts and subject to the virus test.

Yuen suggested public hospitals should test all day patients and put them in surveillance or isolation wards before they test negative.

"Patients' mealtime should also be shortened," he added. "It's better to offer light meals to shorten the time they take off their masks.

"If it's feasible, a hospital can arrange patients to receive treatment for an entire morning or afternoon and avoid making them stay during meal hours so they can eat at home."

The PMH cluster comes after a recent outbreak at United Christian Hospital's palliative care ward 2D, affecting 21 patients and medics, after which it had to stop receiving Covid-19 patients and tightened visit rules.

Hong Kong yesterday saw 53 new infections. Among 43 local cases, six were from unknown sources, while 10 were imported. The patients - ages one to 76 - took the tally to 9,018, including 151 deaths.

A cluster at the Tseung Kwan O-Lam Tin tunnel construction site recorded 11 more cases. So far, 12 workers have been infected. The site has been closed and all 1,500 workers ordered to be tested.

Chuang Shuk-kwan, the Centre for Health Protection's head of its communicable disease unit, meanwhile apologized for mixing up Wah Fung Gardens in Kwun Tong and Wah Fung Garden in Kwai Chung.

Each of them has recorded one infected unit, but health officers mistook it as two infected households in the Kwai Chung block and added it to the list for mandatory tests.

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