Hong Kong failed to vaccinate its elderly. Now COVID deaths are overwhelming morgues and forcing the city to consider a lockdown

For two years, Hong Kong managed to keep COVID at bay by imposing strict quarantine measures on international arrivals. The city’s harsh quarantine policies—locking arrivals away for up to three weeks in isolation—kept total COVID cases low and total deaths even lower. Only 205 people had died from COVID in Hong Kong as of December last year.

But a rampant Omicron outbreak is forcing the city to abandon its old COVID policies and grasp for new ones, as daily case numbers shoot into the tens of thousands and COVID deaths surge fivefold, overrunning the city’s hospitals and morgues.

“The storage space in hospital mortuaries has reached full capacity,” Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority told Reuters on Monday, as Hong Kong reported 87 new COVID deaths, continuing a grim streak of double-digit daily fatalities.

In the past week, the city of 7.4 million has recorded roughly 400 deaths from COVID. On Tuesday, Hong Kong reported 117 new COVID deaths which, according to Bloomberg, makes Hong Kong’s COVID fatality rate the highest in the developed world. On a rolling 10-day average, the Asian financial hub suffered eight deaths per million people from COVID, compared with 4.5 per million in the U.S. and 1.4 per million in Singapore.

With mortuaries full, hospital staff have left dead bodies on gurneys lining hallways or clustered inside emergency rooms. Sometimes, according to the hospital authority, it takes over a day for a body to be cleared away. But the bodies keep coming, and are piling up faster.

“The medical system is completely overwhelmed,” David Chan, a representative from the Hospital Authority, told the SCMP on Sunday.

Hong Kong’s high COVID death rate is a condemnation of the city’s failed vaccine campaign. When the vaccine rollout began last April, the government overhyped unrelated deaths that occurred among people who had received vaccines. Meanwhile, local media ran screeds warning about the adverse side effects of vaccinations among the elderly. As a result, less than than 50% of people over 80 have received their first dose of any vaccine, leaving the age group especially vulnerable to the surging Omicron outbreak.

According to government data, 91% of people who have died from COVID in the past month were not fully vaccinated, while 60% of the first 100 deaths during the current Omicron wave were residents of elderly nursing homes. Over 300 nursing homes in the city have reported Omicron outbreaks, according to the Centre for Health Protection.

Desperate to quell surging COVID cases, the Hong Kong government is reportedly preparing to put the entire city on lockdown for nine days starting March 17, while simultaneously testing the entire population for COVID.

The government has previously denied any intention to enact a citywide lockdown and has yet to confirm current reports that a lockdown is coming. But with no time left to vaccinate the elderly, and bodies already spilling out of hospital morgues, Hong Kong’s battle against Omicron has turned desperate.

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