March 21, 2023

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Running out of space because of Omicron in Hong Kong

Running out of space because of Omicron in Hong Kong

HONG KONG – People are dying of Covid-19 in Hong Kong at a rate exceeding most of the world’s worst pandemic peaks, with nearly 300 deaths a day outstripping the city’s ability to cope.

Officials deployed makeshift refrigerators to store the bagged bodies that had piled up in the crowded corridors of public hospitals. Crematoriums are running around the clock and the coffins are being sought. Authorities have placed 50 repurposed storage containers in the parking lot near an overflowing public mortuary to house 2,300 bodies.

Because the victims died of a contagious disease, grieving relatives are unable to demand that their dead be clothed and embalmed for funerals, as they are traditionally placed in open coffins so that mourners can pay their respects.

“The deaths are sudden, making it difficult for their families to accept,” said Alan Leung, a funeral logistics manager who has seen work fatigue due to lack of supplies and staff absenteeism due to Covid. “And you have to tell them they can’t take one last look, so there is more concern about that.”

The city’s average daily COVID death rate in the week ending Tuesday was 37.64 per million residents. That’s higher than the peaks recorded in hot spots like Spain and the UK earlier in the pandemic, and three times the peak in the US, which reached in early 2021, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.

Hong Kong has recorded nearly 5,000 deaths since December 31, after recording just over 200 in the first two years of the epidemic.

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“Very frankly, it can’t be contained,” said Siddharth Sridhar, a clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “It was a very sharp peak. It is almost needle-like.”

A temporary Covid testing center in Hong Kong this week.


Ken Cheung/The Associated Press

The city’s large, elderly, unvaccinated residents feel it sharply: 87% of the people who died in the current wave were roughly 70 or older Three-quarters were unvaccinated.

The crisis has forced Hong Kong officials to shift their focus to protecting the elderly and reducing deaths and severe illness, suspending the policy of isolating all positive cases and delaying a citywide testing plan. On Thursday, the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, suggested that the government might start soon Roll back travel and social restrictions.

Authorities are building a temporary mortuary for 800 bodies and shipping coffins from mainland China. Hong Kong is also building a 1,000-bed hospital on its border with the mainland city of Shenzhen.

The city’s health department said the number of bodies handled by public mortuaries is increasing rapidly, and despite capacity tripling, temporary storage is needed. She added that officials would work with the funeral industry to simplify the process for family members claiming remains.

Criticism of the government’s unpreparedness for the Omicron outbreak has reached its climax from all corners of society, including many pro-Beijing politicians. Some say the government has focused too heavily on strict quarantine measures at the expense of efforts to vaccinate an at-risk population. Ms Lam admitted that the vaccination rate in Hong Kong was very low with the entry of the Omicron wave.

Hong Kong has faced a record rise in Covid-19 cases and the highest death rate in the world, prompting authorities to impose strict restrictions. Diana Chan of the Wall Street Journal talks about how everyday life has changed in the city, from panic buying to an exodus of residents. Photo: Ken Cheung/The Associated Press

Cherry Au’s father, a 69-year-old retailer, died on March 2 after testing positive for Covid-19. She said she was angry that authorities had failed to learn the lessons of Omicron’s increases elsewhere in the world and had not prepared for the highly contagious variant, and because hospitals were overburdened.

Mrs. O was initially told that her father’s body could be cremated on March 20 or 27, but no date has yet been set for her.

“I feel helpless,” she said, while expressing sympathy for the crematorium workers. “It’s really hard for them, working 24 hours a day.”

Beijing has taken expansion in recent weeks, which receives frequent expressions of gratitude from city officials. On Wednesday, Ms Lam welcomed hundreds of newly arrived medical workers from the mainland. Join teams of health experts on the mainland, as well as construction workers sent to help build new quarantine centers.

Experts say it’s too late to avoid the worst, as the wave has already reached its peak. Researchers from the University of Hong Kong said this week that an estimated 3.6 million people – nearly half of the city’s population – have already been infected.

The speed and ferocity of the outbreak serves as a warning to China, which, like Hong Kong, has a vaccination rate among its elderly that lags behind that of the general population. Chinese authorities Fight many Omicron outbreaks across the country.

A Covid-19 isolation facility in Hong Kong this week.


Bertha Wang/Bloomberg News

In Hong Kong, the number of reported deaths has exceeded the number of patients in intensive care units. The site of some of the worst scenes of the outbreak was the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kowloon. Pictures spread on social media over the past week showed elderly patients lying on stretchers next to body bags containing Covid-19 victims.

A nurse at the hospital said such scenes have been common for weeks as elderly patients have died in the hospital’s emergency department, although the situation has improved recently.

“In every shift, even when I come home and lie in my bed, I only remember her scent,” said the nurse. “It is horrible.”

Sarah Ho, director of the agency that oversees public hospitals in Hong Kong, said last week that officials have since set up temporary sites inside hospitals to store bodies away from patients.

Stephanie Lo, who helps lead a trade group for the aged care industry, said some nursing home residents reported sick residents were dying before they were admitted to hospitals.

Funerals have become simple and hasty affair. With the chapels attached to hospitals closed, people have about 15 minutes to hold a farewell ceremony in the open spaces at the entrance to the mortuary, said Mr Leung, director of funeral logistics.

Ng Yiu Tong, permanent president of the Funeral Works Association, said the seven-day shutdown of Shenzhen, which was caused by the outbreak in that mainland manufacturing hub, is putting pressure on supplies including boxes.

“From deaths to certification to getting a hole in the crematorium, there are clogs at every turn,” Mr. Ng said.

write to Dan Strumpf at [email protected] and Elaine Yu at [email protected]

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