Hong Kong mortuaries hit capacity as COVID deaths climb

  • Record daily 34,466 new infections and 87 deaths
  • International schools allowed to stick to original term dates
  • Health Secretary says authorities do not rule out city-wide lockdown
  • Around 600 elderly care and disability centres infected over the past month

HONG KONG, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Facilities for storing dead bodies at hospitals and public mortuaries in Hong Kong are at maximum capacity due to a record number of COVID-19 fatalities, the Hospital Authority said on Monday, as officials battle to control a surge in cases.

The global financial hub reported a daily record high of 34,466 new coronavirus infections and 87 deaths on Monday, health authorities said.

Separately, the city's Education Secretary said international schools could maintain their original term dates, after widespread confusion over summer school holidays. read more

Kevin Yeung said international schools could continue with online classes through March and April, while local schools will take an early break for the summer from March until mid-April.

School campuses are expected to be used by the government in March as authorities roll out compulsory testing of the city's 7.4 million population.

Empty grocery shelves were seen across several supermarkets as residents scooped up essentials after public broadcaster RTHK cited Health Secretary Sophia Chan as saying the government has not ruled out a city-wide lockdown during the mass testing period.

Leader Carrie Lam was then cited by RTHK as saying residents should not worry as no decision had been made on a lockdown and the government was still assessing the situation. Lam has previously said she was not considering such an option.

The Hospital Authority said the number of patients dying from COVID-19 or serious complications triggered by the cold weather sharply increased over the past two weeks, putting immense pressure on the mortuary service in public hospitals.

"The storage space in hospital mortuaries has reached full capacity," the authority told Reuters in an email.

Dozens of bodies are waiting in hospital accident and emergency rooms to be transported to mortuaries, said Tony Ling, head of the city's Public Doctors Association.

"These bodies now need extra time to wait for collection because resources are just so tight," due to manpower and storage capacity shortages, he said.

The government did not respond to requests for comment.

There have been more than 600 coronavirus-linked deaths in Hong Kong since the start of the pandemic in 2020, fewer than in other similar major cities.

However, numbers are climbing daily with around 400 deaths recorded in the past week, with the majority being unvaccinated residents.

Hong Kong has a large proportion of unvaccinated elderly despite a recent pick-up in vaccinations. Many have hesitated to be inoculated due to a fear of side effects and complacency due to the city's success in controlling the virus in 2021.

Around 600 elderly care and disability centres have been infected over the past month, authorities said.

Medical experts have said the city of 7.4 million residents could see cumulative deaths from the virus potentially rising to around 3,200 by mid-May.

Around 4,000 people on average die each month in Hong Kong, according to 2020 government figures.

Hong Kong has stuck firmly to a "dynamic zero" coronavirus policy which seeks to curb all outbreaks, like that in mainland China. To achieve this, the former British colony has unleashed its most draconian measures since the start of the pandemic, adding to rules that were already among the world's toughest.

The city has recorded over 190,000 infections in total, with around 180,000 of them since the start of February due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

The government has in recent days communicated to the public at press conferences that the deaths are mostly among unvaccinated people. Previously that information was not readily given.

Additional reporting by Twinie Siu and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Michael Perry and Jacqueline Wong

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Farah Master is a Senior Correspondent at Reuters where she focuses on health, demographics and the environment in China. She has worked for Reuters in London, Beijing and Shanghai before moving to Hong Kong in 2013. With a background spanning reporting in markets, companies, sports, political and general news, and economics, she was also part of a team named as a Pulitzer finalist in 2020 for investigative reports on the revolt of Hong Kong. Farah speaks English, Mandarin and Spanish. She has a Masters in Development Studies from the London School of Economics. Contact: +85296318262