Cadavers are piling up at Hong Kong’s hospitals and public mortuaries as the number of Covid cases soars in the territory, which has lost control of China’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began more than two years ago.
Hong Kong, with a population of 7.4mn, has reported more than 205,000 cases — compared with 109,000 for the rest of China — after a surge that local authorities said could force the government to adopt a strict lockdown that it had previously insisted would not be necessary.
On Monday, health officials reported 34,466 new cases, all but four of them locally transmitted.
The city has been forced to adhere to Beijing’s zero-Covid policy and had previously had long stretches without recording any cases, but it failed to vaccinate many elderly residents who are now dying in record numbers.
More than 80 per cent of all adults have received at least one dose of the BioNTech or China’s Sinovac vaccine but the rate falls to just 47 per cent among those aged 80 or older.
About 630 of the territory’s more than 840 Covid-related deaths have been recorded since its “fifth wave” began in the new year, including 124 fatalities reported on Monday.
“There has been a surge of Covid-related deaths,” said Lau Ka-hin, a senior administrator at Hong Kong’s hospital authority. “We can’t [fully] process the transferral of bodies, therefore you will see some bodies [piled up] in accident and emergency rooms.
“The bodies of deceased patients need to be moved from [public hospitals] to public mortuaries for autopsy and investigation,” he added.
Albert Au, a senior health department official, said most of the roughly 1,350 spaces at the city’s three public mortuaries are full. Emergency rooms are also under immense pressure, with patients often examined in open-air triage areas before being taken inside for treatment.
Hong Kong officials have previously said they could restore control through mass testing and isolation of cases, without having to resort to the strict citywide lockdowns used in Chinese cities.
On Monday, however, the territory’s health secretary echoed mainland experts who said compulsory mass testing next month might have to be accompanied by a form of lockdown.
Sophia Chan said that “reducing human flows” would “optimise the effect of the mass testing drive”. “People should avoid going out of their homes” during the testing period, she added.
Three members of Hong Kong’s executive council, the cabinet body that advises chief executive Carrie Lam, told the Financial Times that a plan to force people to stay at home over the testing period was being considered.
“The only way to flush out [unreported] cases are to do compulsory mass testing plus stay-at-home orders during the testing period,” said Regina Ip, an Exco member. Essential services. . . can continue to operate but the city [should] otherwise freeze for, say, seven days.”
Hong Kong has imposed some of the toughest restrictions in the world, with a mandatory two-week quarantine for most incoming travellers and “ambush” lockdowns of apartment buildings when Covid-19 is detected in sewage samples.
Hospitals were also overwhelmed because anyone who tested positive had to be isolated in centralized facilities, even if they only had mild symptoms or were asymptomatic. To relieve the crush, the government has reduced the number of days people must be isolated and allowed more residents to do so at home over recent days.
Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Singapore