HK govt amends laws to better fight Wuhan-linked pneumonia cases

January 08, 2020 12:33
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said no serious pneumonia case related to the Wuhan outbreak has been detected in Hong Kong so far. Photo: HKEJ

The Hong Kong government has acquired greater legal powers to fight contagious diseases following the outbreak of mysterious pneumonia cases in central China.

Under the new regulations, the government can impose a fine and a six-month jail term on anyone suspected of having a respiratory infection who refuses to be isolated or quarantined.

The move came after a 45-year-old woman from Wuhan with symptoms of respiratory infection refused to be confined at the Ruttonjee Hospital in Wan Chai.

The government on Wednesday published the Prevention and Control of Disease (Amendment) Regulation 2020 and the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance (Amendment of Schedule 1) Notice 2020 in the gazette, to include "severe respiratory disease associated with a novel infectious agent" as a statutorily notifiable infectious disease, meaning that one who has developed symptoms of the illness must report to health authorities and allow themselves to be subjected to requirements such as confinement or isolation.

The ordinance currently lists 46 such diseases.

It also means that the Department of Health can prohibit cases of a specified disease and their contacts from leaving Hong Kong as part of measures to prevent its spread.

“The addition of 'severe respiratory disease associated with a novel infectious agent' to the list of specified diseases helps enhance the work of prevention and control of infectious diseases being exported from Hong Kong,” a government spokesman said.

The amendment regulation and the notice take effect on the same day as their publication in the gazette and they will be tabled at the Legislative Council on Jan. 15 through a negative vetting procedure.

The government's enhanced efforts to prevent the still-unidentified Wuhan virus from spreading in the city came after the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) reported nine more such cases on Tuesday, the biggest one-day increase since Dec. 31 last year when the first one was reported, bringing the total to 30 as of Tuesday noon, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported.

In a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee stressed that no serious pneumonia case related to the Wuhan outbreak has been detected in Hong Kong so far, adding that of the 30 patients, 13 have already been discharged while the rest have been in stable condition.

Asked if the government would send staff to Wuhan to monitor the situation there, Chan reiterated that there is an established communication mechanism between Hong Kong and the mainland.

Chan also said measures are in place to check passengers for fever when they arrive by flight or rail in Hong Kong, RTHK reported.

“The current measures provided by the port health office would serve the same purpose as checking the temperature. So there is no need to board the train to do it," the broadcaster quoted Chan as saying.

Dr. Wong Ka-hing, the CHP controller, urged doctors in private practice to report to the health department as soon as possible if they receive suspicious cases and call an ambulance to transport such patients to public hospitals.

Wong said in a radio program on Wednesday morning that the health department had already sent letters to all private doctors in Hong Kong to inform them of the reporting criteria.

Private doctors can contact health officers to arrange patients for isolation at hospitals through an ambulance, and that private doctors can, in a reasonable fashion, assist their patients in isolation.

Authorities may also call the police for assistance if a patient insists on leaving a private clinic without permission, Wong added.

There are concerns about whether the Hospital Authority (HA) has sufficient resources to cope with Wuhan-linked cases during the current winter influenza peak season.

Dr. Chung Kin-lai, director of quality and safety at the HA, said there are about 480 regular isolation beds with a usage rate of 60 to 70 percent at present and the number can be increased to 1,400 if needed.

In related news, Legislative Council President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen has given permission for three lawmakers to ask urgent questions for oral replies on the government's measures in response to the Wuhan outbreak.

Meanwhile, Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, told He Jing, deputy director of Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, during a meeting on Tuesday that she hoped mainland authorities would issue daily updates on the Wuhan outbreak.

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