HONG KONG (AP) – Hong Kong will test its entire population of 7.5 million people for COVID-19 in March, the city leader said on Tuesday as it struggles with its worst outbreak driven by the omicron variant.
The population will be tested three times in March, Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam said.
She said the test capacity will be increased to 1 million a day or more.
“Since we have a population of about 7 million people, testing will take about seven days,” she said.
Hong Kong has reported around 5,000 new daily infections since Feb. 15, with cases threatening to overwhelm its healthcare system. Since the current rise began earlier this year, the city has registered nearly 54,000 cases and 145 deaths.
The order for city-wide testing comes after authorities on the Chinese mainland sent epidemiologists, health workers and other medical resources last week to help curb the outbreak in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Hong Kong has largely endorsed mainland China’s “zero-COVID-19” policy, which aims to totally eradicate outbreaks, although many other countries are changing their approach to living with the virus.
City closures have been imposed in a number of mainland areas, but Lam said no such measure is currently being considered in Hong Kong because it “is not realistic.”
She also denied that the central Chinese government is giving instructions to Hong Kong on how to deal with the epidemic.
“I repeat that the central government has never issued any instructions on our anti-epidemic work,” she said. “The state will offer support as needed or at our request, but of course we will always exchange our views.”
The “zero-COVID-19” strategy means that Hong Kong authorities often take measures such as locking down residential areas for mass testing when positive cases are detected, imposing strict quarantine requirements on travelers and ordering closed businesses.
The rapid rise in infections in the city has threatened to overwhelm its health system.
Health authorities said last week that hospitals already had 90% of capacity and that isolation facilities were full. People who test positive for the virus in Hong Kong must be admitted to either a hospital or a quarantine facility.
Lam acknowledged on Tuesday that the city’s isolation facilities are “severely inadequate” and that it is “working very hard with the full support of the central government” to build more.
The current measures for social distancing, such as a ban on eating in restaurants after 1 p.m.
“This is not good news for the sectors concerned, but at this stage of the pandemic, we have no choice but to take these measures,” Lam said.
She said the city hopes to increase its vaccination rate to 90% in early March.
Other measures announced on Tuesday include ending the school year early and moving the normal summer holidays from July-August to March and April so that schools can be converted into facilities for testing, isolation and vaccination.
Flight bans from countries classified as high-risk countries, including Australia, Canada, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States, will be extended until April 20.
Soo reported from Singapore.