Hong Kong Could Not Be Prepared for One other COVID-19 Surge

Wong Wing-yan has taken to closing the doorways of the empty bedrooms on the suburban Hong Kong nursing residence the place she works, so she doesn’t have to consider the residents who as soon as occupied them. A number of the rooms at the moment are getting used as haphazard storage closets, stacked with mothballed furnishings, wheelchairs, and bins of private protecting tools (PPE). Marks left by tape can nonetheless be seen on the partitions, the place images of family members have been as soon as displayed.

“There are lots of empty rooms now,” stated Wong, a bespectacled nurse in her thirties, as she walked TIME by means of the power in late April. “I’ve identified [the inhabitants] for therefore lengthy, and now after I see these empty rooms, I’m depressed.”

COVID-19 lastly got here to the Kei Tak (Tai Cling) Residence For the Aged on Feb. 13, after sparing it for 2 years and 4 earlier waves of the illness. The subsequent day, 17 residents examined optimistic. The day after that, it was 30. Quickly, 98% of the residents had been contaminated—and after two months, 27 of the nursing residence’s 200 residents had died.

“Our aged residence was a battlefield as hospitals have been overloaded and the healthcare system collapsed,” stated Wong, who has labored at Kei Tak for greater than 10 years.

Sufferers lie in a short lived holding space exterior Caritas Medical Heart in Hong Kong on Feb. 16, 2022.

Leung Man Hei—NurPhoto/Reuters

She was a foot soldier in Hong Kong’s battle towards the fifth wave of COVID-19—a battle town spectacularly misplaced. For a lot of February to April, Hong Kong turned from pandemic success story to the place with the best COVID-19 demise charge on the planet. Out of a inhabitants of seven.5 million, some 9,000 lives have been misplaced in a 10-week interval as Hong Kong seemed to be taken off guard by the extremely contagious Omicron variant.

The hospital system was rapidly overburdened. Horrifying images started circulating on social media of frail, largely aged individuals, bundled in blankets, mendacity on gurneys within the driveways of hospitals too full to accommodate them. Morgues crammed up, and hundreds of corpses needed to be saved in refrigerated containers. In some hospitals, physique luggage have been piled up between the beds of nonetheless dwelling sufferers. Coffins couldn’t be obtained rapidly sufficient and crematoriums struggled to maintain up with demand, leaving many our bodies to decay earlier than they may very well be buried or cremated.

Learn Extra: How Hong Kong Turned China’s Largest COVID Downside

The tragedy happened regardless of vaccines being broadly obtainable for a yr prior and Hong Kong imposing among the hardest an infection management measures on the planet—together with periodic entry bans for non-residents, necessary quarantine for vacationers, strict masks mandates, a compulsory track-and-trace app, and quarantine camps or hospitalization for anybody testing optimistic. However overreliance on such measures led to vaccine complacency. An alarmingly low vaccination charge among the many aged made that inhabitants particularly susceptible, as soon as quicker spreading variants appeared. In January, solely about 25% of Hong Kong residents aged 80 and older had been jabbed, with the speed amongst care residence residents even decrease. Virtually all of those that perished within the fifth wave, about 72%, have been unvaccinated.

The heavy toll at Kei Tak mirrored what was occurring at different aged care services. By the tip of the fifth wave, about 1.5% of all Hong Kong residents aged 80 or over had died, with the overwhelming majority of these fatalities in nursing houses. Now, as COVID-19 begins to spike within the metropolis as soon as extra, it’s not clear that Hong Kong has realized the teachings from earlier this yr. On July 25, the federal government introduced three new deaths from COVID-19, all around the age of 70. Two of the useless hadn’t acquired any vaccine doses in any respect. The vaccination standing of the third has not but been reported.

Containers of provides pile up on beds usually reserved for residents requiring particular care, Kei Tak (Tai Cling) Residence for the Aged, on Could 6.

Anthony Kwan for TIME

Hong Kong’s vaccination marketing campaign failed its aged

Most consultants attribute the excessive toll of Hong Kong’s fifth wave to the low charge of aged vaccination.

The authorities have made two vaccines obtainable without charge to the general public: CornaVac, an inactivated virus vaccine developed by mainland Chinese language agency Sinovac, and an mRNA vaccine manufactured by BioNTech in Germany that makes use of the identical know-how because the Pfizer vaccine broadly utilized in america. Wong says she and different nurses at Kei Tak tried their finest to get their residents jabbed, however in lots of circumstances this required authorization from the residents’ households, who have been typically hesitant, fearing that underlying situations like hypertension, or a historical past of strokes, made aged individuals unsuitable recipients of a dose. This was even though vaccines have been being safely administered to hundreds of thousands of sufferers with these situations within the U.S. and Europe.

Learn Extra: World Shortages Loom as China’s Lockdowns Proceed

Unfounded rumors circulated about deaths linked to vaccination. Native newspapers sowed stoked fears by repeatedly publicizing situations of people that died inside 14 days if being vaccinated—even when vaccination performed no half within the fatalities. Authorities messaging added to the uncertainty. On Mar. 6, then well being secretary, Sophia Chan, advised “to the general public that if they’re unsure about their very own scenario whether or not they have severe continual sickness or uncontrolled continual sickness, they’ll truly seek the advice of their household docs to know extra earlier than they make a reserving for vaccination.”

In such an environment, many individuals in aged care, and their households, merely concluded that vaccines have been dangerous. The implications at Kei Tak have been grimly predictable.

Dr. Poon Yui Pan, deputy head of Hong Kong’s Kei Tak (Tai Cling) Residence for the Aged, conducts a speedy antigen take a look at on a resident.

Anthony Kwan for TIME

Poon Yui-pan, a 42-year-old physician and the deputy head of the power, stated he tried to deal with contaminated residents with acetaminophen, ice packs, and vitamin C he purchased from the native grocery store. Calling emergency providers didn’t deliver instant help. On the peak of the fifth wave, wait instances for an ambulance stretched greater than 30 hours, in accordance with native media. Hospitals have been so crowded that many in Hong Kong recovered whereas ready for a mattress.

Like many different nursing houses, Kei Tak didn’t have sufficient area to maintain contaminated residents remoted, and the virus unfold uncontrollably. The ability struggled with workers shortages as some staff, nervous about catching the virus, stopped coming in or stop. Wong examined optimistic for COVID-19 herself, however continued together with her duties. The residents she sorted had all contracted the virus by then. “I felt an excellent sense of duty to deal with them,” she says.

Learn Extra: The Chinese language Public Is Divided Over Its Zero-COVID Strategy

Wong remembers a very cherished, 92-year-old resident that she known as kai ma—Cantonese for godmother—and anxiously touches her necklace whereas she talks about how the lady’s household had declined to have her vaccinated. She reminisces about afternoons spent with kai ma, watching her favourite TV present, a neighborhood drama from the Nineties. The resident, who was a farmer when she was youthful, was all the time smiling and infrequently shared tales about her household. At mealtimes, she would all the time ask if Wong had eaten earlier than starting to eat herself.

“She was like household to me,” the nurse says.

The aged girl died through the fifth wave, one in all many Hong Kong’s COVID-19 victims who’ve handed away in relative anonymity. There was little public expression of mourning for the numerous lives misplaced. No memorials have been erected and the native press is oddly devoid of tales concerning the lives of those that died. The relations of a number of sufferers from Kei Tak nursing residence who died of COVID-19 declined to be interviewed by TIME and even have the names of their relations shared.

Only a few individuals really feel snug speaking about demise. However in Hong Kong, the reticence is especially acute. “In Chinese language tradition, individuals keep away from speaking about demise as a result of they imagine it could deliver unhealthy luck,” says Chan Kai-woon, a 31-year-old funeral director.

Marks left by tape that after held up household images, seen in a dormitory area that belonged to a resident who died of COVID-19, Kei Tak (Tai Cling) Residence for the Aged, Hong Kong.

Anthony Kwan for TIME

Accountability for Hong Kong’s pandemic failures

Months later, there nonetheless has been no actual reckoning over the massive variety of preventable deaths.

In a uncommon admission, town’s then chief, Carrie Lam, stated in a mid-June interview with Bloomberg TV that her administration might have completed extra to forestall aged deaths with a stronger vaccination drive. However when requested if she needed to apologize to the Hong Kong individuals for something that occurred throughout her tenure, she stated no. In her final look within the legislature in late June, outgoing well being chief Chan ignored questions on whether or not she was personally answerable for the fifth wave.

Some issues have since improved. COVID-19 vaccines at the moment are necessary for brand new nursing residence residents. The federal government has additionally despatched outreach groups to aged houses and started providing a residence vaccination service for these 70 or older. The vaccination charge is larger, however nonetheless, on July 20, solely 59% of the inhabitants aged 70 to 79, and solely 38% of these 80 and older, had acquired three doses of a vaccine. Against this, 80% of individuals 75 and older within the U.Ok. had acquired a fourth dose by Could 2022, two months after they grew to become eligible.

Learn Extra: Taiwan Is Abandoning Its Zero-COVID Technique

For now, town remains to be clinging to social distancing, monitor and hint, masks mandates and different COVID-19 countermeasures in a bid to guard the unvaccinated. That may very well be problematic. Hong Kong reported 4,276 new circumstances on July 26, and officers are once more warning that the hospital system is at risk of changing into stretched. Spikes could happen if the federal government yields to intense stress from the enterprise group to open Hong Kong’s borders and loosen COVID-19 controls.

About 100 care houses had reported new circumstances by early July, although Grace Li Fai, chairwoman of the Aged Providers Affiliation of Hong Kong, instructed native media that transmission chains are being minimize off quicker, as a result of elevated testing for employees and residents. As an alternative, it seems that COVID-19 is spreading amongst aged who don’t stay in care services. Solely about 10% of these at present hospitalized for COVID-19—the nice majority of whom are over the age of 65—are residents of care houses, in accordance to the South China Morning Publish.

Yip Fung-cheung, 82, a resident of Hong Kong’s Kei Tak (Tai Cling) Residence for the Aged, eats dinner in her dormitory area.

Anthony Kwan for TIME

Wong says that life is transferring on at Kei Tak. Residents who have been too depressed to eat after the fifth wave have regained their appetites, and among the empty rooms are being occupied once more. “We’re accepting new residents, so there are a whole lot of new faces,” she says.

She provides that Kei Tak is best ready for a brand new surge. The vaccination charge on the residence has reached virtually 100%, officers have inspected its air flow system, and shares of PPE have been amassed. There have been no new confirmed circumstances on the residence. “I’ve been mentally prepared that there is likely to be a sixth wave,” Wong says.

However the scars stay. She describes COVID-19 as “a disaster” for town’s aged care services. “Hong Kong is meant to be a civilized society,” says Wong. “How might one thing like this occur right here?”

Private results left by a deceased resident, seen on a mattress at Hong Kong’s Kei Tak (Tai Cling) Residence for the Aged.

Anthony Kwan for TIME

Extra Should-Learn Tales From TIME

Write to Amy Gunia at [email protected].

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