Hong Kong Vaccine Bookings Jump in Expat Areas While Others Lag

Covid-19 vaccination appointments appear to be getting snapped up quickly in Hong Kong, especially in parts of the city impacted by the recent gym outbreak, after the government expanded access to shots in a bid to boost the lackluster inoculation rollout.

Spots for shots at community vaccination centers on Hong Kong Island, home to the city’s central business district and most of its expatriate population, filled up quickly on Tuesday, the first day that eligibility expanded to adults aged 30 to 59 years old, covering 70% of the population. The newly added group can book slots starting from Friday.

Hong Kong Vaccine Bookings Jump in Expat Areas While Others Lag

But in a sign that many local residents remained skeptical of inoculation, vaccination centers in Kowloon and the New Territories had more vacancies.

While Hong Kong’s healthy adult population is one of the first in the world to gain entry to the Covid-19 vaccine drive, the expanded access reflects a major vaccine hesitation problem that will likely delay the city’s ability to reopen to mainland China and the rest of the world. Officials widened eligibility earlier than expected because uptake has been dismal among priority groups, leaving millions of doses unused.

Demand for Covid-19 vaccines has generally been lower in the Asia, where contained outbreaks and low death tolls in places like Japan and Singapore has meant that people feel less urgency and more skepticism towards rapidly-developed shots.

Only 5.4% -- some 200,000 -- of Hong Kong people in priority groups including the elderly and healthcare workers came forward for shots since inoculation started on Feb. 26.

Hong Kong Vaccine Bookings Jump in Expat Areas While Others Lag

It’s unclear if the younger adult population can help boost these underwhelming numbers. An informal poll of 13 people in the 30 to 59 years old group on Tuesday showed half planning to get a vaccine now that they can.

George Lin, chief financial officer at Hua Medicine Ltd. and a former banker at Bank of America Corp., said he was so excited to book a slot that he had a sleepless night. He signed up early Tuesday morning and will receive his first dose of Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE’s shot on Saturday in Causeway Bay.

“The first thing I would like to do is to travel internationally,” Lin said, including to the U.S to see his two daughters. “If I were in the U.S., I would not get this until May.”

Hong Kong Vaccine Bookings Jump in Expat Areas While Others Lag

Others said they did not want to take the risk. Resistance among Hong Kong residents has grown after reports of several deaths among inoculated people, though experts said none of them are directly tied to the vaccine.

“I don’t trust the vaccines, there’s not enough data to show it is safe, there’s not been enough testing,” said hairstylist Kei Ma, 41. “I don’t know how many other things the government is hiding.”

‘Absence of Trust’

The expanded vaccine drive comes as the city grapples with a new outbreak of the virus centered on its expatriate community, including employees of international financial firms. Hong Kong will also require all staff from the local U.S. consulate to undergo testing for the virus after two workers became infected.

Political turmoil and China’s tightening grip over the former British colony are complicating factors as city officials try to persuade people to take the vaccine. Chief Executive Carrie Lam received Chinese maker Sinovac Biotech Ltd.’s shot on Feb. 22 along with other cabinet members.

Hong Kong Vaccine Bookings Jump in Expat Areas While Others Lag

“The absence of trust only complicates the vaccine rollout,” said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor in health security at City University of Hong Kong. “Short of mandatory vaccinations, which would likely be resisted by the population, the Hong Kong government is facing a slower path to reopening than its earlier successes against the virus suggested would be the case.”

China is planning to ease requirements for foreigners applying for mainland visas from Hong Kong if they’ve received a Chinese vaccine, something that reassures David Bonnet, managing partner at real estate and hospitality advisory firm Delta State Holdings Ltd. who signed up for a Sinovac shot.

“If you live in Hong Kong and Macau, getting one of the Chinese vaccines probably will give some tangible benefits,” he said. “I don’t want to be subject to quarantines and I hope it will be easier to travel with Chinese vaccines. My hope is to resume business as normal.”

Hong Kong has some of the strictest quarantine rules in the world, with travelers required to do 21 days of isolation in designated hotels. Locally, those who are close contacts of infected people must quarantine in spartan government facilities, even if they have tested negative.

People coming forward for vaccination are hoping that these rules will ease with proof of inoculation.

James Tu, chief investment officer of Hong Kong-based hedge fund firm Long Corridor Asset Management, asked his assistant to book him a slot for the BioNTech vaccine in the first hour appointments opened to the wider group on Tuesday.

“The incentive is to be able to visit my mom in China sooner, hopefully, and doing our bit to exit this Covid epoch as soon as possible,” said Tu, who last saw his mother more than a year ago. “Nobody wants even two days” of quarantine, he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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