HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's coronavirus battle intensified on Thursday as authorities reported that new cases had multiplied by 60 times so far this month, and the city's leader said city-wide testing was being considered in the global financial hub.
Hospitals have been overwhelmed with some patients, including the elderly, left lying on beds outside in chilly, sometimes rainy weather, in shocking scenes that prompted an apology from authorities in the Chinese-controlled city.
Schools, gyms, cinemas and most public venues are shut and many office employees are working from home. But many residents are fatigued by the harsh restrictions imposed to protect against the pandemic, even as most other major cities in the world adjust to living with the virus.
Health authorities reported a record 6,116 confirmed cases on Thursday, up from 4,285 the previous day, with a further 6,300 preliminary positive cases. That takes the total since January to more than 16,600. There were 24 new deaths.
The jump in cases is the biggest test yet of the city's "dynamic zero COVID" policy, but leader Carrie Lam said this week that the city "cannot surrender to the virus."
Some media reports, citing unidentified sources, said the government planned to test up to 1 million people each day from March. Those who fail to comply would be fined HK$10,000 ($1,282).
Lam told reporters later, while greeting the arrival of several mainland Chinese health experts to help with the outbreak, that "city-wide virus testing is a plan we are considering now."
Local media cited her as saying 300,000 tests could be conducted daily by the end of this month.
The government did not respond to a request for comment.
"Because of the severe number of cases we need to speed up admission to hospitals and community isolation facilities," Undersecretary for Food and Health Chui Tak-yi told reporters. "The government is trying to ease all these bottlenecks."
Quarantine facilities had reached capacity and hospital beds were more than 90% full, authorities said.
In a move to free up beds for isolation, Lam said late on Wednesday she had spoken to local hotel owners and planned to make up to 10,000 hotel rooms available for COVID-19 patients.
Lam's comments came after Chinese President Xi Jinping told Hong Kong's leaders that their "overriding mission" was to stabilise and control the coronavirus.
The surge in cases and tighter rules have battered the city's retail sector, with the Retail Management Association (HKRMA) on Thursday saying retail traffic was down 40% from December.
"If the pandemic gets worse and if our rents are kept at the level now ... we will not survive," said Annie Tse, chairwoman of HKRMA. "Since protests and COVID it's been almost three years, how much more cash can we burn?," she said, referring to anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
The association, which represents around 9,000 retail outlets and employs over half of the local retail workforce, urged the government to force developers to provide rent relief for tenants and include the sector in an anti-epidemic fund.
HKRMA expects flat year-on-year growth for retail sales for the January-June period, and said growth would easily sink into negative territory in the second half if the situation persists.
Hong Kong has adopted the same "dynamic zero" coronavirus strategy employed by mainland China to suppress outbreaks.
But the scale and speed of the highly contagious Omicron variant has left authorities scrambling. Hospitals are operating at maximum or over capacity and long queues have formed outside testing centres, with some people waiting hours.
Authorities said they could no longer keep up their testing and isolation mandates, resulting in a backlog that could not keep pace with the daily infection numbers.
China has said it would help Hong Kong bolster its testing, treatment and quarantine capacity, and secure resources from rapid antigen kits and protective gear to fresh vegetables.
Hong Kong has recorded around 35,000 infections since the start of the pandemic, and more than 250 deaths, far fewer than other similar-sized major cities.
However, medical experts have warned that daily cases could surge to 28,000 by the end of March amid worries about high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the elderly.
($1 = 7.8006 Hong Kong dollars)
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