Record Omicron outbreak is forcing Hong Kong to abandon some pillars of Beijing’s COVID-zero strategy

February 28, 2022, 8:08 AM UTC

One by one, Hong Kong’s government is being forced to move away from key pillars of its strict COVID Zero strategy as a surge in new cases overwhelms the under-prepared health-care system.

Patients with mild cases are no longer sent to hospital or isolation facilities as there’s no space; instead they’re asked to stay home until they test negative with rapid antigen tests — which people often need to buy themselves. 

Close contacts, no longer recorded by the city’s elaborate contact tracing process, are moving around freely though they’re technically supposed to home quarantine for at least a week. The app used to flag locations with confirmed cases has suspended risk alerts. Compulsory testing using PCRs has been largely dropped, with at-home rapid tests taking their place

This quick erosion of core COVID Zero practices shows the difficulty of maintaining an approach that seeks to wipe out the virus when faced with more infectious strains like omicron. Hong Kong saw a record 26,026 new cases on Sunday and 83 deaths, making the outbreak much bigger than any the zero-tolerance approach pioneered by China has ever quelled. Hospitals are inundated and the city’s morgues are nearly full, with bodies of those dying from COVID left in emergency wards and hallways. 

Officials maintain that these relaxations are just temporary, until isolation and testing capacities are beefed up with China’s help. 

Beijing is sending in Liang Wannian, the leader of its pandemic response since the first outbreak in Wuhan. It’s also funding the swift construction of makeshift hospitals and quarantine centers. Compulsory mass testing, essential to rooting out cases on the mainland, gets under way next month. But it remains to be seen whether these measures can eliminate a surge of this magnitude. 

Publicly, Hong Kong is steadfastly committed to COVID Zero, or the “dynamic zero” strategy, as Beijing has started calling it. Border restrictions and mandatory traveler quarantines — the most obvious hallmarks of the policy — remain firmly in place, isolating the financial hub from the rest of the world even though just seven of Sunday’s infections were imported cases. Flight bans on nine countries, including the U.S. and U.K., have been extended until late April. 

Under the latest government guidelines, new cases are free to leave their homes once they test negative twice, provided they’ve received at least two doses of a COVID vaccine. That can be as soon as a week after first testing positive. There is currently no way for infected cases to report results using rapid tests to the government, although officials are working to roll out an online reporting system this week. Measures like electronic tracking bracelets to ensure people with COVID remain in their homes during the isolation period may also be introduced, according to local media reports.

In many ways, Hong Kong is living with the virus in the same way ex-COVID Zero adherents Singapore, Australia and now New Zealand are — based on the case numbers and the way tracking methods are being relinquished. The difference is those places made a concerted and well-telegraphed pivot to the endemic path, one that Beijing has — so far — refused to do. 

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