Acting Chief Executive Matthew Cheung on Tuesday said local authorities are prepared for the ‘worst-case scenario’ as the outbreak of a new Sars-like virus continues to spread both in and outside of mainland China, even as a top infectious diseases expert urged the government to take more proactive steps to guard the city from ‘disaster.’
Cheung said local authorities are in a state of ‘extremely high alert’, and said stricter screening measures may be introduced later, after mainland authorities confirmed that there have been some cases in Wuhan where the virus was transmitted people.
However, he defended the authorities’ decision to only require air passengers from Wuhan to fill in health declaration forms, saying imposing the same requirement for train passengers from the city at the centre of the outbreak could make things worse.
“Right now we already have temperature checks at the express rail terminus. If everyone is required to fill in health declaration forms, large crowds will gather in the lobby, and with a bigger crowd, the chances for people to get infected might increase”, he said.
However, Cheung didn’t rule out the possibility that the requirement could be imposed later, saying authorities will take things “one step at a time.”
However, microbiologist Ho Pak-leung of the University of Hong Kong says the government needs to be more “proactive” by setting up dedicated ‘fever clinics’ for patients with fever and respiratory symptoms to prevent a possible outbreak of the disease at local hospitals.
“The fever clinics could help divert the overcrowded situation in our public sector, especially in the Accident and Emergency Department [of public hospitals]”, Ho explained.
“There is no need to wait for the first confirmed case in Hong Kong before starting the fever clinic.”
He said the sharp rise in the number of infections confirmed by mainland authorities over the past few days could signify that the virus has mutated to a form that’s more readily spread between humans – and “we may be seeing a massive increase in the number of pneumonia cases.”
He said if there are signs that the virus is being passed between people outside of Wuhan, the health declaration form requirement would need to be extended beyond air passengers from Wuhan, and border control measures would need to be tightened up further if there are more infections in Guangdong.
“If there [are] a few cases of coronavirus importation to Hong Kong, and these coronavirus-infected patients… escape the health check at the first tier and are admitted to the overcrowded medical ward, it would be a disaster”, Ho warned.
However, he agreed with Cheung that asking train passengers to sign health declaration forms may not be the most practical idea, as the large crowds of people could mean passengers could easily slip away unnoticed.
Ho also said the government needs to do far more to educate the public of the need to wear masks at hospitals and crowded places like public transport, and to maintain good hygiene at all times.
“It is time for people in Hong Kong to take the matter seriously. It is a virus that can be prevented by simple hygienic measures such as putting on a surgical mask in places crowded with people, and also keep your hands clean all the time”, Ho said.
Mainland authorities reported on Tuesday that a fourth person has died from the new coronavirus in Wuhan, and more stringent medical screening measures have been established in more places as the country enters its busiest travel period ahead of the lunar new year.