After keeping the coronavirus at bay for much of the past two years, Hong Kong officials are struggling to contain the outbreak.
The Hong Kong government has asked hotels in the territory to reserve up to 10,000 rooms to be used for coronavirus quarantine, as an Omicron-fueled virus surge tests its pandemic response to the limit.
The Chinese territory has seen an increase in cases – and an increase in deaths – in recent days, with Chinese President Xi Jinping ordering the local government to take “all necessary measures” to control the epidemic.
Ten people are said to have died on Wednesday, including a three-year-old girl. Local media reported daily confirmed cases could hit a record high of 5,000 on Thursday.
Most of those who test positive for COVID-19 are isolated in central quarantine facilities, but the scale of the outbreak means some of the centers are running out of beds even after rules were relaxed to allow asymptomatics to get in quarantine at home if they wanted to.
The government says it has already secured about 4,400 hotel rooms, of which about 1,700 will be ready before the end of the week.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam met with members of the hospitality industry on Wednesday to demand more.
Saying he was optimistic that “at least 10,000 hotel rooms could be made available for the program,” Lam sought to reassure hoteliers, telling them authorities would provide staff with “essential infection control training” and that the government could also “take over day-to-day activities like check-in and check-out, room allocation, cleaning and security” if they prefer.
“I look forward to your positive response within a day or two,” she told them.
Since the start of the pandemic two years ago, Hong Kong has pursued a “Zero COVID” policy, locking down buildings and implementing mandatory testing and strict quarantines for incoming travelers as well as those confirmed with the virus.
Earlier this week, Lam admitted the failures of his government’s approach and some experts told Al Jazeera that the growth of the epidemic is currently very difficult to control.
“I don’t see how we can stop transmission at the moment, with infections doubling roughly every three days,” said Ben Cowling, an infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong.
“But this epidemic will run out of steam and peak within a month.”
China is already helping in an attempt to step up testing, treatment and isolation measures in a place where only about a third of older people are fully vaccinated against the virus. According to the government, around 83% of the territory’s 7.5 million inhabitants have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Following Xi’s call, the English-language South China Morning Post said officials were moving forward with plans to build three emergency hospitals and plan to mass test everyone in China’s territory. 7.5 million inhabitants at least three times.
“The protracted pandemic continues to undermine the business environment and test people’s patience, two factors that are not conducive to the city’s well-being,” the Post wrote in an op-ed Thursday.
“The responsibility always stops with the general manager. The Lam team should show more determination and responsibility and redouble their efforts to solve the bottlenecks.