12 January 2020
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan on Wednesday said the current outbound travel alert system does not cover mainland. Photo: RTHK News video screenshot
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan on Wednesday said the current outbound travel alert system does not cover mainland. Photo: RTHK News video screenshot

No travel warning for Wuhan despite outbreak, health chief says

No outbound travel alert (OTA) will be issued for the central Chinese city of Wuhan despite an outbreak of pneumonia cases there, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said.

Chan made the remarks during a meeting at the?Legislative Council on Wednesday, when she was grilled by several lawmakers over the government’s handling of the rising number of local cases suspected to be linked to the Wuhan outbreak.

Asked by a lawmaker whether the government will issue a travel alert on Wuhan, Chan said it cannot be done simply because the current OTA system does not cover mainland China, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

The system, which was launched by the Security Bureau in 2009, currently covers 88 countries and territories.

In 2010, also during a Legco meeting, then security chief Lai Tung-kwok told lawmakers that mainland China, Macau and Taiwan were not covered by the city’s OTA system.

“This is similar to the arrangement in other places, where travel alert will not be issued for different areas within a country,” Lai said at the time.

The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) under the Department of Health said the number of suspected cases of respiratory illness with recent travel history to Wuhan has risen to 39, including eight new cases as of Wednesday noon. Of this number, 21 have been discharged from hospital.

Chan confirmed that public hospitals are facing a shortage of manpower during the current winter influenza season, but said she had asked the Hospital Authority (HA) to review manpower arrangements in order to better cope with the Wuhan-linked pneumonia cases.

The HA, after a meeting of its Central Command Committee on Wednesday, said it would step up surveillance and infection control measures in public hospitals.

It would also explore?the feasibility of deferring some non-emergency services in order to centralize resources and manpower to better cope with the Wuhan-linked cases and ease the pressure on?frontline healthcare workers.

The new measures being implemented include rapid testing, with results to be made available in less than 24 hours, the transfer of patients in stable condition to?rehabilitation or convalescence wards, and enhancement of airflow and ventilation in public hospitals and clinics to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

The HA will also consider deferring?elective surgeries and non-emergency services, depending on the situation.

Asked about the reported shortage of face masks in the market, Chan said?she understands the supply has been tight across Hong Kong, but an association of pharmacies has promised to replenish stocks in the coming weeks, RTHK reported.

Supplies in public hospitals will last for three months, she said.

The health chief also said that under an existing notification mechanism with the mainland,?Hong Kong has not received any report of similar pneumonia cases in provinces and cities other than Wuhan.

State broadcaster?China Central Television (CCTV) reported on Thursday that mainland experts have identified the mysterious pneumonia in Wuhan as a new type of coronavirus.

“As of January 7, 2020, the laboratory detected a new type of coronavirus,” CCTV said in the report. “The new coronavirus that caused this epidemic situation is different from previously discovered human coronaviruses, and further understanding of the virus requires more scientific research.”

The World Health Organization also said the more than 50 pneumonia cases in Wuhan may be due to a newly emerging member of the family of viruses that caused the deadly SARS and MERS outbreaks, Reuters reported.

However, the WHO said it needed more comprehensive information to confirm precisely the type of pathogen causing the infections, adding that a new coronavirus was a possibility.

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