Hong Kong airport is the first to test all arrivals for coronavirus

The Hong Kong government announced on Tuesday that all travelers on inbound flights will be tested for the coronavirus.

The measure, enacted on Wednesday, came amid a second wave of coronavirus infections in the city that resulted in part from a steady rise in imported infections. The city had 936 confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with at least 359 of them in travelers who’d been overseas.

The new rule makes Hong Kong the first airport in the world to test all incoming passengers regardless of departure location, though some airports in Beijing and Shanghai have for weeks been testing and quarantining all international passengers. (Hong Kong doesn’t have flights within its own borders.) Likewise, airports in South Korea and Taiwan have been testing entire flights of passengers from high-risk areas like Spain and the U.K., and they’ve tested any arrivals displaying symptoms of the virus.

Testing on a such a wide scale is considered an integral step in returning virus hotspots to some sense of normalcy.

Hong Kong authorities will deploy rapid coronavirus tests to arrivals from regions it deems highest-risk for importing infections, like the U.K. and China’s Hubei province, which was the epicenter of the outbreak. Those test results will be available within eight hours or so. Travelers receiving them will have to stay at a temporary testing facility in an exhibition center near the airport until the results are ready.

Hong Kong will conduct tests with slower turnaround times on all other arriving passengers. They will get their results in a matter of days, but, regardless of outcome, they’ll be required to self-quarantine for two weeks, enforced via tracking wristbands.

The new testing measures won’t immediately require a significant increase in testing capacity, since the number of new arrivals to Hong Kong each day has slowed to nearly a halt. Hong Kong International Airport’s air traffic has dropped by 90% amid the pandemic and the city’s ban on all arrivals of nonresidents or noncitizens (other than mainland Chinese). According to a South China Morning Post estimate, there are likely only a few hundred travelers entering the city each day.

The blanket testing at Hong Kong’s airport speaks to what needs to happen next in the fight against the pandemic. One way out of the current stage of large-scale lockdowns is with robust testing. Identifying and quarantining those with the disease could let those without it to go about their lives, though that return to business as usual is likely to happen cautiously.

“We must all prepare for several cycles of a ‘suppress and lift’ policy,’” Gabriel Leung, a leading infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in a New York Times op-ed about lifting lockdowns. “[Where] restrictions are applied and relaxed, applied again and relaxed again, in ways that can keep the pandemic under control but at an acceptable economic and social cost.” The key to that approach, Leung argues, will be “robust data” and knowing exactly who might be carrying the virus and where it could spread.

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