Hong Kong is quarantining patients in understaffed and overrun government camps as it records more COVID cases than the entire U.S.

March 3, 2022, 10:37 AM UTC

After keeping COVID at bay for most of the pandemic, Hong Kong is now reporting more daily infections and a higher death rate than the U.S. Total infections are likely even higher than official figures since residents are hiding their positive test results rather than risk being carted off to grim government quarantine facilities.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong recorded 55,535 new COVID cases—up 70% from the day before and 10,000 more than the U.S.’s case count for the same day. Hong Kong reported 117 new COVID deaths on Tuesday. According to Bloomberg, that grim milestone makes Hong Kong’s COVID fatality rate the highest in the developed world. Hong Kong’s death count is so high because of its low vaccination rate, with only 50% of over 80-year-olds vaccinated. According to government data, 91% of people who have died from COVID since December were unvaccinated.

The local government is struggling to manage the rampaging outbreak and is rushing to build thousands of new quarantine facilities ahead of a campaign to test every one of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents. Hong Kong follows a strict COVID-zero protocol of whisking positive cases into government quarantine. But the crudeness of Hong Kong’s rapidly built quarantine camps is only adding insult to injury for those infected with COVID.

Last week, authorities reported four suicide attempts within a 27-hour period at Hong Kong’s primary quarantine center, Penny’s Bay, as conditions at the facility spiral out of control. Overwhelmed by new cases, staff at the government-run center have sometimes forgotten to let people leave when their quarantine period is over.

Rooms at Penny's Bay are stacked two storeys high
The colorful compartments of Hong Kong’s Penny’s Bay quarantine center, where reports say four people attempted suicide last week.
Paul Yeung—Bloomberg/Getty Images

A group of 16 detainees at Penny’s Bay staged a protest last week and walked out of their respective rooms, where they had been forced to isolate, after camp officials had neglected to confirm when they were free to leave. The camp staff called the police, but the protesters were allowed to leave the same day without prosecution.

Residents have complained of being fed rotten food and suffering from diarrhea at Penny’s Bay, while gripes are already circulating about one of Hong Kong’s new quarantine facilities in Tsing Yi that hasn’t fully opened.

Workers constructed the new quarantine camp in Tsing Yi in less than a week. The bare-bones facility is one of eight prefabricated builds Hong Kong is assembling to prepare for an influx of positive cases. The camp provides beds for 3,900 people, but according to images released by the site, the quarantine center will “isolate” patients three to a room, with one toilet to share.

Housing units are crammed together in rows, side to side and back to back
Hong Kong’s new quarantine center in Tsing Yi will house over 3,000 patients, stuffing three people in one room.
Anthony Kwan—Getty Images

Early reports show rooms at the Tsing Yi center—which was built by a firm from mainland China—are also equipped with electrical outlets that don’t match Hong Kong plugs. Quarantined residents will have to bring adapters to charge electronic devices. It’s unclear whether the new center is equipped with Wi-Fi. Penny’s Bay is not.

Yet building new quarantine facilities for Hong Kong’s infected is only half the government’s battle. Staffing the centers is another hurdle.

The government plans to hire 1,000 “carers” from mainland China to look after the growing number of elderly patients locked in quarantine centers. But, according to the secretary for labour and welfare, the imported carers don’t have to prove prior qualifications and will be given just three days training before being tasked with aiding the elderly.

Already at Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld-Expo center—which the government converted into another quarantine facility—staff are ill-equipped to handle the special needs of some of their 500 patients.

Hospital beds fill the main hall of Hong Kong’s Asia Expo Center in August 2020, when it was first repurposed as a quarantine site.
Paul Yeung—Bloomberg/Getty Images

In January, a local woman spent days unable to contact her 88-year-old mother, who was sent to the AsiaWorld-Expo temporary quarantine site along with 50 other residents from her care home. The 88-year-old is partially paralyzed, wears adult diapers, and needs assistance showering.

When the woman’s daughter finally tracked her mother down, she learned that staff at the center were only providing sponge baths. The center has showers, but officials are loath to use them, in case the steam helps COVID spread. Yet patients sleep side by side in the Expo center’s cavernous halls, where scores of beds are laid out in rows.

The inconsistent, unscientific, and slapdash solutions are the Hong Kong government’s latest attempts to fend off its most bruising clash with COVID yet.

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