Hong Kong struggles with storing bodies as COVID-19 infections rise

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Facilities for storing bodies at hospitals and public mortuaries in Hong Kong are struggling to keep pace with a record number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, eclipsing authorities attempts to control a deepening outbreak.

According to the head of the city’s Public Doctors Association, Tony Ling, dozens of bodies are waiting in hospital accident and emergency rooms across the global financial hub to be transported to mortuaries.

The government and Hospital Authority did not immediately 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, less than in other similar major cities.

However, numbers are climbing daily with a record 83 deaths in the past 24 hours.

Around 300 deaths have been recorded in the past week, with the majority unvaccinated residents.

Hong Kong reported a record 26 026 daily COVID-19 infections on Sunday and 83 deaths, as an outbreak of the highly transmissible Omicron variant overwhelms healthcare facilities and proves hard to control.

The global financial hub has imposed some of the most stringent COVID-19 restrictions in the world to cope with the coronavirus spike, leading some executives to leave and frustrating some residents.

While most major cities seek to live with the virus, Hong Kong has imposed its harshest rules yet, following the mainland with a “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy aiming to eradicate the disease. This proved largely successful until the Omicron spike overwhelmed the city’s tracking and isolation processes.

At the start of a sensitive political year for Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing is deeply invested in the city’s response. Xi says fighting the pandemic is the city’s “overriding mission”.

Hong Kong’s outbreak has inundated its public health system, triggering a raft of measures including the construction of more isolation and treatment units.

“We are very worried,” Albert Au of Hong Kong’s department of health told a news conference.

“Case numbers are still on the rise, and we expect that there will be a rising trend for the foreseeable future.”

Some experts predict the city of 7.4 million will have up to 180,000 cases daily next month.

The most vulnerable are particularly at risk, with 67 of the 83 deaths reported on Sunday at nursing homes. Vaccination rates among the elderly have been relatively low and many suffer from chronic illnesses.

Hong Kong is hiring 1,000 temporary workers from mainland China to care for elderly COVID-19 patients at its isolation and treatment facilities, said Law Chi-kwong, secretary for labour and welfare.

Officials have said the mainland would help provide testing, treatment and quarantine capacity.

Last week city leader Carrie Lam used emergency powers granted under British colonial-era laws to exempt mainland Chinese staff and projects from any licensing or other legal requirements.