Hong Kong authorities on Wednesday began a city-wide search for the contacts of a Covid-19 patient and ordered a Royal Caribbean “cruise to nowhere” ship, carrying 3,700 people, to return to port early for virus testing after nine people were found to be close contacts in an Omicron variant outbreak. One government Covd-19 adviser told local media he estimated there were up to 10 invisible transmission chains in the community and along with two other expert advisers urged the government to tighten restrictions.
The global finance hub has stuck to a zero-Covid strategy by largely isolating itself from the world and enforcing a draconian and costly quarantine regime. On December 31, a streak of three months without community cases ended with the first local transmission of the new Omicron variant. Since then, authorities have scrambled to track down and test hundreds of people who had been in contact with a handful of Omicron patients.
“The most stringent anti-epidemic measures will be implemented to prevent the mutant strains from spreading,” the government said in a statement. The latest hunt was sparked by a patient who danced with some 20 friends in a central park on New Year’s Eve. Two of the fellow dancers, one of whom was a domestic helper, came up positive in preliminary tests. The helper’s employer and eight other of her close contacts then went on a cruise journey on Jan. 2.
As part of its coronavirus restrictions, Hong Kong has restricted cruises to short trips in nearby waters, with ships asked to operate at reduced capacity and to only allow vaccinated passengers who test negative for the virus. The “Spectrum of the Seas” ship, which returned a day early, had about 2,500 passengers and 1,200 staff on board. The nine close contact passengers were isolated from the rest of the people on board and preliminary tests taken during the journey returned negative results, authorities said.
“Spectrum of the Seas is taking appropriate measures under guidelines by the Department of Health,” Royal Caribbean told Reuters in a statement. The nine close contacts will be sent to a quarantine centre, while the rest of the passengers and staff will have to undergo several compulsory tests in coming days, the government said.
Additionally, people who have been to dozens of places across Hong Kong around the same time as the close contacts of recent patients have been issued compulsory testing notices, the government said in a separate statement. The venues include the central Victoria Park, the newly-opened M+ modern art museum, ferry piers, restaurants, stores, clinics and others.
Gabriel Leung, University of Hong Kong (HKU) dean of medicine and a government adviser, told public broadcaster RTHK there were probably “five-to-10 invisible transmission chains” in the city. “There’s no time to waste,” Leung said. “We need circuit-breaker measures.” Two other advisers, Yuen Kwok-yung and Ivan Hung, said officials should consider closing schools and curbing restaurant hours, local media reported.