HONG KONG – For two years, Hong Kong has largely avoided a major coronavirus outbreak thanks to tight border controls and strict social distancing measures. Then, Omicron caused an explosion of infections, showing that the city was not preparing its older – and most at-risk – residents for the worst.
In just a few weeks, the outbreak quickly overwhelmed Hong Kong’s world-class healthcare system. Ambulances arrive at emergency units in batches. Hospitals that run out of beds are in isolation wards. Patients wait on sidewalks and in parking lots, given emergency blankets to keep warm during the coldest and wettest time of the year.
Hong Kong’s initial success in containing the pandemic was the starting point of complacency that now has deadly consequences. Officials have gone too slowly to prepare for a broader outbreak and have done too little to address misinformation about vaccines, social workers and experts say. For many of the city’s one million residents aged 70 and over, the risk of contracting the disease has long seemed so low that they avoid vaccination.
Before the current outbreak, less than half of people in that age group had been vaccinated. Among residents of care homes, the rate is even lower, at just 20 percent, according to the Hong Kong Council of Social Services. Now they are bearing the burden of the city worst outbreak. More than 200 people have died this month from Covid, many of them over 70 years old and unvaccinated.
Hesitancy towards vaccines is attributed to misinformation about potential side effects and effectiveness of vaccines, as well as a degree of public distrust of government. But even as Hong Kong records more deaths in just over two weeks than in the past two years, some residents are still reluctant to get vaccinated.
Lam Suk-haa, an 80-year-old resident who stopped for a chat on the way to a restaurant in a working-class neighborhood in North Point, said: “I am worried that the side effects of the vaccination will kill me. kill me. on Wednesday. “I certainly wouldn’t dare shoot.”
Ms. Lam said she was very skeptical of Western medicine in general. She also said she had heard from a TV news report that people like her with high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar could be at risk for serious side effects from vaccinations. (In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggestion that older adults with medical conditions should be vaccinated to reduce their risk of serious illness.)
Health officials in recent days have repeatedly urged older people to get vaccinated and get Work to increase immunization coverage for care home residents. The government also imposes rules that require proof of vaccinations to enter restaurants, malls and supermarkets. These measures have helped: Currently, three-quarters of people in their 70s and nearly half of people 80 and older have received at least one shot.
The demand for vaccine input was what finally convinced Ella Chan, 73, to get her first shot this week. She said she was hesitant at first because she had a cold, then continued to decline because the reports she had read worried her.
“I didn’t want to get vaccinated at that time because I read the newspaper and had a lot of anxiety, and I keep pushing to get vaccinated until now,” Ms. Chan said as she left a government building in North Point where she lived. vaccinated her.
Such worries suggest that vaccine misinformation has spread rapidly in Hong Kong, where people can choose between a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech or a vaccine developed by Sinovac, a company China’s private development company.
The occasional reports of deaths after vaccinations have turned into rumors about the dangers of vaccines that are widely circulated on WhatsApp groups and social media, despite the reports. Officials did not attribute any deaths to either vaccines.
Terry Lum, a professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong, says the government has been slow to correct misconceptions about the effectiveness of vaccines and their side effects. He said many older residents believe the Sinovac vaccine is not effective and that the BioNTech vaccine causes many serious side effects.
“When that misinformation spreads and no one comes forward to clarify, and we have such low cases, people wonder, ‘Why would I take the risk? ,” said Mr. Lum. Some residents of the semi-autonomous Chinese city are also suspicious of the government advertising a Chinese-made vaccine. “People feel there is a political reason for the government to promote Sinovac,” he said.
The situation in Hong Kong is particularly remarkable when compared to Singapore, an island of about 5 million people those where 95% of people 70 years of age and older are immunized. Ho Ching, wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, put on Facebook to urge Hong Kong’s elders to “put aside distrust or distrust of the government, their memories of the flight out of China, or any other reason for their distrust of the government.” permission”.
To some extent, the government’s cautious approach to early vaccination may raise concerns about the risks. For example, in March last year, officials noted that Sinovac should not be given to people with the disease.”severe, uncontrolled chronic diseases“And appeal to residents who are uncertain about their medical condition consult their doctor before vaccination.
“The fear around vaccination has taken hold and it is reinforced by the health care system,” Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in economics and health systems. “We created this idea that people need to be healthy candidates to get vaccinated.”
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Now, officials are scrambling to get more older residents protected, but that only solves one problem. Nursing home operators and social workers say the government’s failure to prepare for explosions in cases has created unnecessary chaos. As public hospitals run out of beds, care homes don’t have the staff or equipment to care for the sick, nor the space to isolate them from the rest of the population.
Nursing homes in Hong Kong have been closed to visitors since last fall. However, incidents have popped up at multiple homes in recent weeks, industry officials said. At meetings with representatives of about 300 homes this week, more than 70% said they had recorded Covid cases in residents or staff, said Joe Chan, secretary of the Hong Kong Elderly Services Association. Kong, an industry group said.
“For us, the situation right now is really unhealthy,” said Mr. Chan, who is also chief executive officer of Granyet Aged Care Group, which runs six homes with 640 beds. “There is no quarantine center for our staff or close contact with cases. They are all stuck in homes for the elderly, which is not a good environment.”
Chua Hoi-wa, executive director of the Hong Kong Council of Social Services, the Hong Kong government has yet to issue formal guidance to nursing homes on how to handle an outbreak. Although it had been two years to prepare for such an event, the rapidity of the spread took many by surprise.
“No one would have expected that we would have so many confirmed cases in a few weeks,” Mr. Chua said. Some care facilities, he said, are looking at waiting times of about a month for public health workers to come in and administer the shots.
The spiraling outbreak may not shake the attitudes of Hong Kong residents like 80-year-old Lam, who has yet to be infected, unless the government mandates vaccinations.
“I will not get vaccinated as long as I have a choice,” Lam said. “Let young people have a chance.”
Joy Dong contribution report.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/25/business/hong-kong-unvaccinated-elderly.html ‘I Don’t Dare Get the Shot’: Ravages Virus Unvaccinated elderly Hong Kongers