Hong Kong to Test All Foreign Helpers After Variant Found

Hong Kong will quarantine residents of a roughly 400-unit apartment building for 21 days and test all of the city’s foreign domestic helpers after finding the first locally acquired case of a Covid-19 variant.

The infected person was a 39-year-old domestic helper living in a building in the Caribbean Coast complex in the Tung Chung neighborhood, the government said. A 10-month-old baby who lived with her was also infected, it said.

All foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong will need to be tested for Covid by May 9, Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan said at a Friday evening briefing. Exemptions will apply to helpers who have completed two vaccine doses at least 14 days prior.

Domestic helpers will be required to be vaccinated in order to renew their contracts, officials said.

“The reason is not to have any prejudice against any particular group, the whole consideration is about risk,” said Secretary for Labor and Welfare Law Chi-kwong. “The nature of their work is looking after family members, and many of them are very elderly. Also because of them staying in Hong Kong, during the rest day, they have to meet friends, take a break but then that may cause a risk of cross-family infection, so the whole consideration is a matter of risk.”

The building was locked down starting Thursday night. All residents were required to take Covid tests, and will be taken to serve their three-week quarantine in government centers even if they test negative.

Ronald Lam, controller of the government’s Centre for Health Protection, said Thursday night that the source of the person’s infection remained unknown, and that preliminary test results showed the variant N501Y, which was first found in South Africa, and a mutation, E484K, which may help the pathogen resist vaccines and antibody treatments.

“Given it is the first locally infected case in the community involving mutant strains and it also transmitted to one of the family members, we think the situation is very grim,” Lam said. “We have to conduct a series of measures for prevention and control.”

The lockdown of an entire building could fuel frustration with Hong Kong’s erratic Covid response, with business owners and residents alike angered by inconsistent and confusing measures, including the stopping and starting of in-person school classes and byzantine new rules for restaurants that can stay open later if staff and patrons have been immunized.

Kabeeta Gurung, 49, a resident of the building in Caribbean Coast who runs an international kindergarten in Tung Chung, talked about the lockdown.

“It’s very well managed but at the same time it’s very contradictory,” she said. “The protocols for testing were amazing. The booths were set up and the fences put up, but we were all herded, literately hundreds of us -- I was sort of backing into someone’s back.”

Gurung said she was fully vaccinated and had received her second dose more than two weeks ago. “What’s the point of getting vaccinated? Why couldn’t they done a home quarantine?” she said.

The city is working to incentivize vaccinations, but its rollout is being hampered by a perceived lack of urgency amid low daily caseloads, distrust of local government messaging following unprecedented unrest, and widespread public concern about the effectiveness and the extremely rare side effects of vaccines.

People coming from Hong Kong who are participating in a quarantine-free travel bubble with Singapore due to start next month must have had two vaccine doses at least 14 days before flying.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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