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Hong Kong is struggling to contain an outbreak of COVID

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For most of the pandemic, Hong Kong managed to keep COVID-19 mostly at bay, and life there was pretty normal. But a couple months ago, omicron found its way in, and NPR's John Ruwitch explains how one of the world's most densely populated cities is now struggling to contain a raging outbreak.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hong Kong's plan was to stay COVID free.

BEN COWLING: We did really well in Hong Kong in the first two years of the pandemic. We kept COVID out.

RUWITCH: But it all changed in January, says Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong. The territory has been trying to follow what the government calls a dynamic zero-COVID strategy. Despite that...

COWLING: Right now we have some of the highest case counts in the world and some of the highest daily mortality counts in the world.

RUWITCH: Hong Kong has been recording 25 to 50,000 new cases and more than 150 deaths each day recently. The government was counting on its ability to stop outbreaks in their tracks, but omicron spread too quickly, and the situation has been made worse by low vaccine coverage among the elderly, who weren't encouraged strongly enough to get shots, he says.

COWLING: I think we needed that as a backup plan, and we didn't have it as a backup plan because maybe there was too much confidence or determination that the zero-COVID would succeed.

RUWITCH: The government is now scrambling, with help from Beijing, to contain the fallout. But hospitals and morgues are overwhelmed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Over the weekend, Security Secretary Chris Tang visited an isolation facility made of containers that the government threw together in two weeks. It can accommodate thousands of people, and it's one of several similar facilities.

CHRIS TANG: We were trying to arrange the admittance into these isolation facilities as soon as possible. Basically, all depends on the availability of the rooms and the situation of the individuals.

RUWITCH: Many individuals in Hong Kong are worried. Stories have swirled of people being stuck in isolation camps like the one Tang visited where conditions are basic. In one widely reported case, an 11-month-old child was separated from her parents after she tested positive. Many who could have fled the city, and NPR learned of several others who have tested positive but aren't reporting it to the authorities. Meanwhile, the government is trying to quash a flood of rumors, including a persistent one that it's denied that the entire city will be completely locked down soon. Like mainland Chinese cities where outbreaks have appeared, that sparked panic-buying at grocery stores. Kitty lives with her 88-year-old father and says it's a struggle.

KITTY: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: When she's free to go shopping, she says, after work or on weekends, the products are hard to find. She has to drive from store to store. Scientists think omicron started to spread in Hong Kong when it passed from a new arrival to another person in a quarantine hotel several weeks ago. In a similar hotel, Jennifer Carver and John McLennen are nearing the end of their 14-day quarantine on arrival. It's a requirement for everyone who enters the city, and it's kind of ironic these days, given that COVID is more prevalent inside Hong Kong than most places outside. Jennifer and John transited through Dubai, the Maldives and Bangkok just to meet Hong Kong's stringent entry requirements.

JENNIFER CARVER: I said to my mother, you know, I don't think I've ever worked so hard to get back to a place that I didn't really want to go to (laughter).

JOHN MCLENNEN: And I think we're safer in the hotel room than we are on the street.

CARVER: Yeah (laughter), exactly.

RUWITCH: Ben Cowling, the epidemiology professor, says there may be 2 million or more people with COVID in Hong Kong now out of an entire population of 7.4 million. The number of new cases is starting to come down, he says, but it'll be a while before this city gets back to normal. John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULTA NOX'S "A PEARL ON THE BACK OF THE LID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.