Warning sounded over Covid-19 import by students returning to HK

March 18, 2020 12:03
Travelers wearing protective suits walk through a hall at the Hong Kong airport. Authorities now fear a rise in imported Covid-19 cases, especially as many youth studying overseas seek to rush back home. Photo: Bloomberg

Authorities on Tuesday called on young people pursuing studies overseas to not rush back to Hong Kong if they are feeling unwell, reminding the students of potential risks the city is facing in the form of imported Covid-19 infections.

Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Communicable Disease Branch at the health department's Center for Health Protection (CHP), said at a news briefing that students having suspected symptoms should first seek medical help as soon as possible from local hospitals in the cities where they study, instead of getting on a plane back to Hong Kong.

Traveling to Hong Kong while sick could pose health risks to other passengers who take the same flights, as well as to citizens within Hong Kong, the official reminded.

As for those without symptoms, Chuang said there is no ground to blame them for trying to get back home if they are more confident in Hong Kong's healthcare system.

The remarks came as the CHP reported that 10 more people tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in Hong Kong to 167, plus one probable case.

Of the newly confirmed cases, five were imported ones, with two of the patients being male students, aged 21 and 27 (the 164th case and the 166th case), who study in the United Kingdom.

They both developed cough on March 10 and arrived at the Hong Kong International Airport from London by different flights on Monday.

Upon their arrival, they were sent to the Kwong Wah Hospital and the Caritas Medical Centre by airport health staff before their respiratory samples tested positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday.

As more and more Hong Kong students studying overseas are expected to return home, the government announced on Tuesday that starting from Thursday, people coming to Hong Kong from any foreign country will be quarantined at home for 14 days or put under medical surveillance.

Chuang told media that while those put under home quarantine may pose a threat to their family members, it is difficult to arrange for all students returning home from overseas to stay in quarantine centers set up by the government.

As such, Chung suggested that the family members stay with their friends or relatives or stay in hotels if it is economically feasible.

Talking about the announcement made on Tuesday by Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee, who said the Department of Health is looking at expanding the range of Covid-19 tests to cover inbound travelers considered high risk, Chung said there are no details at the moment.

She admitted that testing all home-returning students would be a big challenge.

Even if they test negative, it is possible that the virus is in the incubation period. As such, the best arrangement is to place them under home quarantine for 14 days, said Chuang, whose view was echoed by David Hui Shu-cheong, a professor of respiratory medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Dr Linda Yu Wai-ling, the Hospital Authority's Chief Manager, said as the number of imported Covid-19 infection cases could increase as more students studying overseas return home in the coming days, the occupancy rates at isolation wards and beds in public hospitals will keep rising.

In other news, a pet dog owned by a female patient who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier but later recovered and was discharged from hospital on March 8 died on Monday, two days after the animal was released from quarantine facilities managed by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD).

The dog had never actually developed any symptoms, despite repeatedly testing "weak positive" for the coronavirus since late February before its release on Saturday, RTHK cited the AFCD as saying.

The female owner did not consent for a necropsy to be done to ascertain the cause of its death, the AFCD said.

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