Hong Kong leader urges vaccinations as COVID infections swamp city

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HONG KONG, March 11 (Reuters) - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Friday that the city's COVID-19 vaccination programme would focus on its elderly and children, as authorities battled to reduce a surge of coronavirus infections and climbing death rates.

Health authorities reported 29,381 new infections and 196 deaths on Friday. In total since early 2020, the global financial hub has recorded almost 650,000 COVID-19 infections and about 3,500 deaths - most of them in the past two weeks.

Hong Kong registered the most deaths per million people globally in the week to March 9, according to data publication Our World in Data. Most have been unvaccinated senior citizens.

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Until this year, the Chinese-ruled city had an enviable track record of controlling the virus due to stringent measures as part of its "zero covid" approach, which like mainland China seeks to eradicate outbreaks at all costs.

However, many residents in the former British colony chose to remain unvaccinated for most of 2021, due to the minimal number of infections and fear of side effects, particularly among the elderly.

"Over 90% of the deaths were those who had not been fully vaccinated. We need to catch up and vaccinate every Hong Kong citizen," Lam told a daily news briefing on how her government was managing the virus.

While there has been a rapid pick up in vaccinations - more than 90% of the population have now had at least one dose, rates among the more vulnerable elderly have lagged the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the city.

Just over 53% of those over 80 are vaccinated, government data show.

Lam said her government was shifting its approach to target the elderly with more medical resources after a senior Chinese official said Hong Kong needed to prioritise reducing deaths.

The government had previously focused on identifying, treating and isolating each infection even if they were mild or asymptomatic cases. It was also planning to hold a mass testing scheme for the city's 7.4 million residents in March.

Lam this week said there was no time frame for the testing and it would only be done if there were sufficient resources.

Hospitals, morgues and isolation centres are overflowing, while some supermarkets and grocery stores still have empty shelves nearly two weeks after residents began stocking up in anticipation of a potential city-wide lockdown.

Many residents have been frustrated about what they see as constant changes in the government's policy.

Lam said she was the "authoritative source" for all coronavirus information and would address any rumours or misinformation. Her administration was managing the outbreak as best as possible with the changes aiming to achieve "the objectives of safety and health," she said.

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Reporting by Farah Master, Jessie Pang and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Kim Coghill and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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