The number of coronavirus cases in Hong Kong could balloon to more than 1,000 within the next two weeks if the government does not effectively manage the epidemic, a local scientist has claimed.
Dr Sean Yuan Hsiang-yu, an assistant professor at City University's Department of Biomedical Sciences, said the risk of a community outbreak was medium high to very high, depending on the quality of quarantine measures, as well as delay between the onset of sickness and isolation.
"We have seen in recent days a sharp increase in the number of cases in South Korea. Just a few cases, if not properly isolated, can lead to more than a hundred other infections," Yuan said.
South Korea now has the second highest number of infections outside mainland China, with 977 cases, following an outbreak in Daegu over the past week.
"The government in Hong Kong needs to make sure quarantine rules are tight and work to lower the number of people who come in contact with infected people," he said.
In January, Yuan predicted a rise of at least 60 infections during the two weeks following the end of the Lunar New Year holiday, and an influx of people travelling from the mainland into the city.
As of Tuesday, 84 people in Hong Kong had been confirmed to be infected, while two people with underlying health issues have died.
Globally, more than 80,000 have been infected, mostly in mainland China, with over 2,700 deaths.
Yuan's newest mathematical estimate found that with an average delay of 31/2 days between the onset of illness and quarantine, and absolutely no contact between infected patients and other people during the isolation period, there would still be a cumulative total of 106.8 local cases by March 8.
The increase would likely be from imported cases, Yuan said, and with proper isolation the outbreak could be controlled.
Yuan's calculations were adapted from a previous model by Imperial College London, with an estimated transmission rate in Wuhan, where 2.92 people fell ill for every infected person over a period of 8.4 days.
However, if infected people had a "recontact rate" of 50 per cent, meaning cutting the number of contacts with the patient by half, the city could see a total of 1,236 cases by March 8.
Even if the number of contacts is cut to 20 per cent, it would still bring an increase of more than 300 cases to Hong Kong within the next two weeks, based on the estimations.
Yuan said the recontact rate could be effectively reduced with properly designed quarantine centres, such as ensuring individual bathrooms and dining areas. Any unnecessary human interaction should be reduced or take place outdoors if possible, he said.
"The government should also be making use of technology to keep tabs on those who are under home quarantine, such as using smart watches and have a proper reporting system to keep track of close contacts," he said.
People under home quarantine should also have a guaranteed food source so they are less likely to leave home to eat, Yuan said.
He also urged the city's health authorities to be more transparent with information.
"If we have more publicly available information on family or hospital infections, more scientists can join the effort to help analyse the spread of the virus," he said.
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