HONG KONG — For two years, Hong Kong had largely avoided a major coronavirus outbreak with tight border controls and strict social distancing measures. Then Omicron triggered an explosion of infections, exposing the city’s failure to prepare its older — and most at risk — residents for the worst.
In a matter of weeks, the outbreak quickly overwhelmed Hong Kong’s world-class medical system. Ambulances arrived in great numbers at emergency units. In isolation wards, hospitals were short of beds. Patients waited on sidewalks or in parking lots for their turn, and were given emergency blankets to keep them warm during the coldest and most wet times of the year.
Hong Kong’s early success in keeping the pandemic at bay was the starting point of a complacency that has now had deadly consequences. Social workers and experts claim that officials have not done enough to correct misinformation about vaccines and moved too slowly to prepare for a larger outbreak. For many of the city’s one million residents who are 70 or older, the risk of getting sick had long seemed so low that they avoided getting inoculated.
Prior to the current outbreak, less that half of those in this age group had been vaccinated. According to the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, the rate of vaccination among residents of care homes was just 20%. Now they are bearing the brunt of the city’s worst outbreak. This month, Covid has claimed the lives of more than 200 people, many of whom were over 70 years old and unvaccinated.
The hesitancy over vaccines has been attributed to misinformation about the vaccines’ potential side effects and efficacy, as well as a high level of public distrust of the government. However, Hong Kong still saw more deaths in Hong Kong in two weeks than it did over the past two years. Some residents were reluctant to get immunized.
“I worry that the side effects of vaccination will kill me,” said Lam Suk-haa, an 80-year-old resident who stopped to talk on her way to a restaurant in the working-class neighborhood of North Point on Wednesday. “For sure, I don’t dare get the shot.”
Ms. Lam stated that she was skeptical about Western medicine in general. Ms. Lam said that she had heard that vaccination could have severe side effects for people with high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that older adults with medical conditions get vaccinated in order to reduce the risk for severe illness.
In recent days, health officials have repeatedly urged seniors to get vaccinated. We are working to increase the number of inoculations for residents in care homes. The government also made it mandatory that all persons entering restaurants, supermarkets, and malls must show proof of vaccination. These measures have worked: Nearly half of the 80-year-olds and three-quarters (75%) of those in their 70s have received at least one shot.
Ella Chan (73), was finally convinced by the vaccine entry requirement to get her first shot. She stated that she had initially hesitated to get her first shot because she had a virus, but then she put off because of the reports she had read about her concerns.
“I didn’t want to get vaccinated then because I had read the newspapers and I had many worries, and I kept pushing it back and back, until now,” Ms. Chan said as she left a government building in North Point where she got her vaccination.
These concerns are due to misinformation about vaccines, which has rapidly spread in Hong Kong. Residents can choose between BioNTech and Pfizer vaccines or Sinovac vaccines, a private Chinese company.
There have been a few instances of death after inoculations, but rumors about the dangers of vaccines spread widely via WhatsApp groups and social media. Officials have not yet attributed any of these deaths to either vaccine.
Terry Lum, a professor of Social Work at the University of Hong Kong, stated that the government has been slow in correcting misinformation about the vaccines’ efficacy and side effects. He said that many older residents believed the Sinovac vaccine was ineffective and that BioNTech vaccine produced severe side effects.
“When that misinformation is circulating and no one comes out to clarify the information, and we have such low cases, the people wonder, ‘Why would I take the risk?’” Mr. Lum said. Some residents in the semiautonomous Chinese city were also suspicious of the government’s promotion of Chinese-made vaccines. “People felt there was a political reason for the government to push Sinovac,” he said.
The situation in Hong Kong is quite striking, especially when compared with Singapore, which is an island of approximately five million 95% of the population aged 70 years and older have been vaccinated. Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, took to Facebook to urge Hong Kong’s older people to “put aside their distrust or mistrust of government, their memories of their flight from China, or any other reason for distrust of authorities.”
To some degree, the government’s cautious approach to vaccinations early on may have fed concerns about the risks. In March of last year, for instance, officials noted that the Sinovac vaccine should not be given to people with “uncontrolled severe chronic diseases,” and urged residents who weren’t sure about their medical conditions to consult their doctors before getting vaccinated.
“The fear around vaccination took hold and it was reinforced by the health care system,” said Karen GrépinAssociate professor at Hong Kong University, who specializes in economics. “We created this idea that people needed to become healthy candidates in order to get vaccinated.”
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Officials are now scrambling for more elderly residents to be protected. But that is only one problem. Nursing home operators and social workers say the government’s lack of preparedness for the explosion in cases has created unnecessary chaos. When public hospitals ran out of beds, care homes didn’t have the staff or equipment to care for those who fell sick, nor the space to isolate them from the rest of the residents.
Since last fall, visitors have been banned from visiting nursing homes in Hong Kong. Officials in the industry say that recent weeks have seen cases in many homes. Representatives from around 300 homes met this week. More than 70% said they had received reports of Covid cases from residents or staff members, according Joe Chan, secretary of Elderly Services Association of Hong Kong.
“For us, the situation right now is really not healthy,” said Mr. Chan, who is also the managing director of the Granyet Elderly Care Group, which runs six homes with 640 beds. “There are no quarantine centers for our staff or close contacts with cases. All of them are stuck in elderly homes, which is not a good environment.”
Chua Hoiwai, chief executive of Hong Kong Council of Social Service said that the Hong Kong government has yet not issued official guidelines to nursing homes about how to handle an epidemic. Despite having prepared for this event for two years, many were taken by surprise by the rapid spread.
“No one had ever expected we would have so many confirmed cases in so few weeks,” Mr. Chua said. Some facilities have wait times of up to a month before public health workers can visit and administer shots.
The spiraling epidemic might not change the attitudes of Hong Kong residents such as Ms. Lam, an 80-year-old woman who has yet to get the jab unless the government makes mandatory inoculations.
“I won’t get vaccinated as long as I have a choice,” Ms. Lam said. “Let young people get the shot.”
Joy DongContributed reporting
Source: NY Times