Covid wreaks havoc on Hong Kong nursing homes

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Kathleen Wong was glad to have found a place in a nursing home for her 89-year-old mother. But her relief has turned into a nightmare as Hong Kong sinks into a wave of Covid that is hitting its elderly, largely unvaccinated population hard.

Nursing homes have become the epicenter of the unprecedented outbreak in this city. Pensioners account for almost 60% of the deaths linked to the coronavirus since January, when the omicron variant emerged.

With just 200 deaths in the first two years of the pandemic, Hong Kong has recorded more than 3,000 deaths this year, mostly older people in this city who are reluctant to get vaccinated.

“I am constantly on alert, fearing a bad news call,” Wong told AFP.

His mother, who suffers from cognitive problems and needs help feeding herself, is one of nearly 60,000 people residing in nursing homes in Hong Kong. More than 1,700 have died of covid and 22,070 were infected since the beginning of the year.

Hong Kong hospitals were overwhelmed: corpses piled up and elderly patients waited to be treated in makeshift treatment rooms or even on the street. Residents typically live in tiny 6.5-square-meter rooms, separated by partitions.

These residences “have not been conceived or equipped for quarantine,” laments Cheng. “Forcing older people back into nursing homes is like sending them to die,” she says.

Two years of a strict “Covid Zero” policy kept the virus out of Hong Kong for a long time, but ómicron breached those defenses in early 2022.

In just three months, some 600,000 infections have been registered, against 12,000 in the first two years of the pandemic. And Hong Kong currently boasts one of the highest mortality rates in the developed world.

Microbiologist Siddharth Sridhar is not surprised and attributes it to “a perfect storm”: an overwhelmed health system, very low immunity in a territory almost spared by the virus, and a very low vaccination rate among the elderly.

So far, less than 50% of septuagenarians have received both doses of the vaccine. Among those over 80, it is just over 30%.

David, a man in charge of some 60 residences who speaks under a pseudonym, explains that many preferred not to be vaccinated due to side effects that they saw as more dangerous than the virus itself, which is almost non-existent in Hong Kong.

The authorities, for their part, also did nothing to allay these fears.

“Many relatives told us that it would be very hard for them if the elderly suffered side effects and died,” David tells AFP.

The local chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced on Wednesday that all nursing home residents would receive at least one dose of the vaccine in two weeks, but for trade unionist Cheng Ching-fat this comes “too late”.

At Gracious Alliance, a nursing home on Hong Kong Island, half of the 32 patients and all of the staff have been infected in the past fortnight, says director Rebecca Chau Tsang.

A huge room where the bathrooms are located has been adapted to house positive cases in quarantine. The contacts have been housed in another room.

But it was “almost useless” given the transmissibility of omicron, he acknowledges.

Workers with mild symptoms stayed to lend a hand. One claims to have stayed up to 20 hours a day. “This wore us out,” she says.

Mrs. Wong, whose mother resides in one of the few nursing homes still safe from the virus, affirms that “the problem comes from the government that has not found a solution and has not been effective.”

“All we can do is sit and wait, but how long can older people hold out?”

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