COVID-19 cases at Tsing Yi building traced to faulty sewage pipe

February 12, 2020 13:32
Police officers in protective gear help in evacuating residents in Hong Mei House of Cheung Hong Estate in Tsing Yi on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

An improperly sealed exhaust pipe of a residential sewage system has been blamed for the spread of the novel coronavirus in a public housing estate in Tsing Yi.

Steve Luk Hing-chuen, assistant director of estate management at the Housing Department (HD), said an investigation by experts revealed that an exhaust pipe connecting to the fecal discharge pipe of a unit at Hong Mei House of Cheung Hong Estate had been cut off and not properly sealed, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

The unit, No. 7 on the lower floor of the apartment block, is the residence of the 42nd confirmed case of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the city, a 62-year-old woman, Luk told a press conference on Tuesday.

Luk suspected the toilet alteration work might have allowed the virus to leak through the exhaust pipe into the woman's flat.

It was learned that another patient, a 75-year-old man who became the 12th confirmed case, also resides in unit No. 7 on a different floor of the same building.

The HD official said the exhaust pipe had now been well sealed and department personnel would spend the next two to three days disinfecting all No. 7 units in the apartment block and checking whether other ventilation pipes had been altered.

Households in No. 7 units at Hong Mei House have been evacuated and transferred to quarantine centers.

CHP controller Wong Ka-hing said five of those under quarantine were symptomatic and sent to hospitals for isolation. The five, however, tested negative for COVID-19, Wong said.

Luk revealed that three other buildings in public housing estates where several tenants had tested positive for COVID-19 infection also have the same pipe structure connecting the same units on different floors.

As such, the HD is now inspecting if the exhaust pipes of those units have been modified, Luk said as he warned public housing tenants not to make structural changes in their flats without official approval.

The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) under the Department of Health (DH) reported seven additional cases of COVID-19 infection, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the city to 49 as of 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Among the newly confirmed cases are three people related to the Tsing Yi woman, including her son, her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law's father.

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, told the same news conference that the situation at Hong Mei House is now completely under control, saying that tenants need not panic as Hong Mei House is not in the same situation faced by Amoy Gardens, which saw the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003.

Unlike in 2003 when there were multiple community outbreaks, such is not the situation in Hong Kong at the moment, he said.

Yuen said the clearest reason for Tsing Yi woman's infection at the moment was that the remodeled exhaust pipe in her flat had a leak. However, other means of transmission such droplets from an infected person or direct contact cannot be ruled out.

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