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Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, Hong Kong Tries To Cope


In Hong Kong, the coronavirus outbreak is placing huge additional strains on the local government. Thousands of people are in quarantine, and doctors are trying to figure out who to test for the new virus, who to isolate and who to send home. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Hong Kong on how the city is trying to cope.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Right now, I'm standing outside the Chun Yeung public housing estates. These are these 40-story towers. These are brand-new public housing buildings that have not yet been occupied, and they've just become one of the largest quarantine facilities here in Hong Kong. Buses under heavy police escort recently arrived, bringing in passengers off of the Diamond Princess cruise ship from Japan. Police have set up barricades around the entire complex, and this is not just to keep the people under quarantine in. A few weeks ago, protesters set fire to another high-rise that Hong Kong had been planning to use as a quarantine facility.


CARRIE LAM: Hong Kong could not afford not to have this center.

BEAUBIEN: That's Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. This housing estate, she said, is the city's only viable quarantine site for the Diamond Princess passengers. She said there is no plan B.


LAM: We will do all we could to protect this estate. And I hope residents around will accept this arrangement which is of benefit to the whole society.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to today's media briefing. Let me introduce the speakers to you.

BEAUBIEN: Hong Kong's public health system has been screening seven to eight hundred suspected coronavirus cases a day. At a press conference, the Hospital Authority's chief manager for quality and standards, Dr. Lau Ka-hin, speaking through an interpreter, announced that they're launching a new outpatient testing program for suspected COVID-19 cases to try to ease the burden on hospitals.


LAU KA-HIN: (Through interpreter) For patients age 18 with fever, upper respiratory tract infection or pneumonia - if a clinical diagnosis that they don't need to be hospitalized - then the accident and emergency department will give a specimen tube to the patient.

BEAUBIEN: People are being sent home to collect sputum samples as soon as they wake up in the morning.


LAU: (Through interpreter) The patient does not have to stay in the hospital, wait for the test result.

BEAUBIEN: It's always possible that the patient might not take the sample correctly or fail to return the specimen. But Dr. Lau says the program greatly eases the burden on hospitals and laboratories.


LAU: (Through interpreter) If the test result is negative, we will inform the patient by text message. But if his test is positive, then the department will call the patient and arrange for the patient to go into hospital for treatment in isolation.

BEAUBIEN: In addition to testing thousands of people for the virus, Hong Kong's health department is also attempting to track down hundreds of people who were or might have been in contact with someone who's infected. Dr. Chuang Shuk-Kwan, the head of communicable diseases for the health department, says it's hard to find these people.

CHUANG SHUK-KWAN: For example, the airplanes, the trains - sometimes they don't provide a telephone number, and sometimes they're not in Hong Kong.

BEAUBIEN: For instance, the city was notified that 36 Hong Kong residents were on board the Westerdam cruise ship, where a passenger tested positive after disembarking in Cambodia. The health department was able to connect with 24 of them, but it's still trying to track down the other 12. This week, two unrelated people who'd both taken a bus from Macao tested positive. Health officials are trying to find everyone else who was on that bus.

Again, Dr. Chuang.

CHUANG: Also, the taxi drivers because the patient cannot provide a name plate, car plate number for the taxi. And it's very difficult to ask them to come. And we try all sorts of means, and sometimes it's futile.

BEAUBIEN: And as if the health department didn't have enough extra work trying to chase down potential contacts of confirmed cases, it's also monitoring nearly 12,000 people who are under mandatory home quarantine. Most of them are Hong Kong residents who've recently returned from China. Those at highest risk are fitted with wrist monitors to make sure they don't leave their apartments. As for the others, the health department is keeping tabs on them by tracking their cellphones, under the assumption that no one goes anywhere these days without one.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.