Hong Kong never had a Delta outbreak. Now it’s locking down and banning flights after finding one untraceable Omicron case

January 5, 2022, 11:48 AM UTC

On Wednesday, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said the city’s pandemic situation has become “dire” and issued a wave of new restrictions in a city that has enjoyed months of living free of COVID.

Effective Friday, Hong Kong will block all flights from eight countries including the U.S., France, and U.K. for two weeks; shut down gyms, bars, karaoke venues, and other recreational establishments; and ban dining in at restaurants after 6 p.m.

What prompted the harsh measures? One untraceable case of Omicron.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Lam said that the case is “very alarming” since there is no “clear chain of transmission.”

“We have yet to see a new wave; we believe we are the verge of another outbreak,” Lam said. “We know that once there is an outbreak of Omicron, there is no containing it.”

Hong Kong’s heavy-handed response to one untraceable COVID-19 case may be baffling to much of the rest of the world, since most countries have long given up hope of fully containing the spread of the highly transmissible variant.

On Tuesday, the U.S. reported over 1 million new COVID-19 cases, a single-day record for any country since the beginning of the pandemic. Countries like the U.K., France, Canada, and Germany also reported record or near record COVID-19 case counts this week as Omicron waves take hold.

Hong Kong was among the only places that managed to avoid an outbreak of the early Delta variant of COVID-19, largely through imposing mandatory hotel quarantines of up to three weeks for most arrivals and meticulously ensuring that any imported infections did not leak into the community.

But Omicron is putting Hong Kong’s airtight defenses to the test, and it remains unclear whether one of the only places in the world that is attempting to defeat Omicron is up to the task.

How it started

Hong Kong’s troubles with Omicron started right before the new year.

On Dec. 31, Hong Kong confirmed its first Omicron case in the community, after a crew member for Hong Kong’s flagship airliner Cathay Pacific tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting a restaurant called Moon Palace. As a transport worker, the Cathay employee was allowed to skip Hong Kong’s hotel quarantine but was supposed to stay at home while off-duty. Cathay later fired the employee for breaching the government’s rules. The case sparked a minor outbreak, with six diners so far testing positive for the virus.

A separate “dance cluster” of Omicron infections also emerged after a case linked to another Cathay employee spread to four people who dance together in a park each morning. On Wednesday, authorities recalled a sailing cruise ship, which had been taking 2,500 passengers on a leisurely “cruise to nowhere,” after nine of the passengers were identified as close contacts of someone in the dance cluster who tested positive.

Authorities believed they had the outbreak under control until yesterday.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong recorded its first untraceable local case in over three months. Authorities said that a 42-year-old man tested positive, likely with the Omicron variant, even though he had not visited the Moon Palace restaurant and had no known contacts with anyone who tested positive.

Public health officials interpreted his case as evidence that Omicron is already spreading through the community, prompting Wednesday’s harsh measures.

“There are probably five to 10 invisible transmission chains in the community. It’s a very alarming situation,” Gabriel Leung, one of the city’s top infectious disease experts, told a local radio station.

Hong Kong has fully vaccinated 62% of its population, roughly on par with the U.S.’s rate, according to Bloomberg. But officials have been particularly concerned about the prospect of a COVID outbreak in the city due to low uptake among the elderly. Officials have said that only 20% of Hong Kong’s population over 80 years old have been vaccinated.

COVID zero and Omicron

Hong Kong’s COVID-zero strategy, which seeks to eliminate every single case of COVID, has long drawn the ire of segments of its population and its business community, who are frustrated with having to endure three weeks of hotel quarantine while much of the world has relaxed travel restrictions in an effort to live with COVID.

Hong Kong instead has prioritized reopening quarantine-free travel with mainland China, which has pursued a similar COVID-zero path. City officials have said that Hong Kong’s pandemic situation needs to be under control for China to consider restarting normal travel with the city. (Hong Kong was almost completely free of COVID for the latter half of 2021, but Beijing still refused to ease travel restrictions.) As it pursues a travel lane with the mainland, the city does not appear concerned that it is growing more isolated from other parts of the world.

“Of course, international travel is important, international business is important, but by comparison the mainland is more important,” Lam said in a press conference last October.

Mainland China, meanwhile, appears to be holding on to its COVID-zero stance tightly as the opening ceremony for the Beijing Winter Olympics approaches. Xi’an city in China’s central Shaanxi province has been completely locked down for weeks amid a Delta outbreak that has infected over 1,600 residents. Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm, predicted this week in a report that China will take increasingly harsh measures to keep Omicron at bay, even as COVID-zero policies grow increasingly less effective against the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

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