Hong Kong could discharge recovering Covid-19 patients to make better use of isolation wards that are nearing full capacity, the city's leader said on Tuesday, as it was revealed that at least another 60 people had tested preliminary positive for the coronavirus.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also announced the government would hand out tens of billions of dollars to help those suffering during the public health crisis in a second round of relief measures.
And Lam appealed to the city's landlords to give shop tenants a break on their rent, with retail sales statistics due to be released later on Tuesday expected to record their biggest fall since records began.
"I appeal to landlords to waive rents for shop tenants, and I will request that all government departments offering rental services review the room for a further rental cut," Lam said, adding that she had discussed the matter with the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong.
Among the newly admitted cases was a 36-year-old woman in the 21st week of pregnancy, a medical source said, making her the second pregnant woman to be treated for the disease in the city.
She previously travelled to Brazil and the United States and returned to Hong Kong last Friday. She later developed a fever and a cough, and is now being treated at Eastern Hospital, in Chai Wan.
Other new cases include students returning from overseas and close contacts of members of a band that played in Lan Kwai Fong.
Speaking ahead of the weekly Executive Council meeting, Lam said it was "not satisfactory" for confirmed coronavirus cases not to have been admitted to hospital yet, and the authorities have been considering moving recovering patients to quarantine centres.
By Tuesday morning, Hong Kong's total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases stood at 682, most of them Hongkongers returning from overseas, as experts warned the situation was severe, and even "a little out of control".
The surge in cases has pushed isolation wards at some hospitals to maximum capacity. About 40 infected people were still waiting to be admitted as of Monday night.
Among the cases was a 21-year-old man surnamed Wong, who was confirmed as being infected on Saturday night, but had to stay in his 200 sq ft subdivided flat with his mother in Sham Shui Po until Monday noon to be admitted to hospital.
During that time, Wong, who worked in a bar and had not been overseas recently, was at one point listed as having been admitted to Kwong Wah Hospital in Yau Ma Tei.
But he was eventually admitted to Tuen Mun Hospital, a mix-up described while appearing on a radio programme on Tuesday.
Lam said the delay was unavoidable given the growing pressure hospitals were under, and added that a large number of overseas arrivals had to go through saliva tests upon arrival, of which some were confirmed infected without symptoms.
"The problem now lies in the capacity constraint in the hospitals to admit patients in a speedier manner," Lam said, adding she had asked Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee to work closely with the Hospital Authority to speed up the process.
"We do not rule out that the authority may transfer recovering patients to other sorts of quarantine centre, with one possibility being the current quarantine centres under the Centre for Health Protection," Lam added.
On Monday, the Post reported that the government would look at the feasibility of using major sports and entertainment stadiums as an option to meet growing demand for isolation space.
Lam said the addition of 400 second-tier isolation beds, to be available by the end of the week across hospitals, could help provide more capacity, and the authority and the Department of Health would find the best way forward to use the resources.
Dr Arisina Ma Chung-yee, president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors' Association, said one of the bottlenecks was because some patients have to be hospitalised until the virus can no longer be detected in their body.
She suggested that if the 400 "second-tier isolation beds" ran out, the authority should consider allowing patients in a stable condition to be discharged and stay at home, or to be placed in a makeshift facility away from their residence.
Giving an update on the sweeping measures to limit social interaction, Lam said authorities had inspected 5,000 catering locations and issued 400 reminders for businesses to comply with the new rules, such as checking customers' body temperatures and ensuring tables were spaced at least 1.5 metres apart.
Lam said police had also issued verbal warnings to those violating the ban on gatherings of more than four people in a public space, but would consider skipping warnings and directly fining violators HK$2,000 in the coming days.
The chief executive described medical staff fighting the outbreak as heroes, and called on the public to exercise self-discipline in following social distancing rules.
She said more than 70 people had violated mandatory home-quarantine orders and police would prosecute them under the "zero tolerance" policy.
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