Hong Kong to scrap isolation rule for new COVID-19 cases

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Shoppers look at flower bouquets at a Lunar New Year flower market in the Causeway Bay district in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. The Year of the Rabbit officially begins on Jan. 22. (AP Photo/Anthony Kwan)

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong will scrap its mandatory isolation rule for people infected with COVID-19 starting Jan. 30 as part of its strategy to return the semi-autonomous Chinese city to normalcy, the city’s leader said Thursday.

For most of the pandemic over the last three years, Hong Kong has aligned itself with mainland China’s “zero COVID” strategy, requiring those who test positive to undergo quarantine. Many residents had to be sent to hospitals or government-run quarantine facilities even when their symptoms were mild.

Currently, infected persons are allowed to isolate at home for a minimum of five days and can go out once they test negative for two consecutive days. After the rule is dropped, a mask mandate will be the only major COVID-19 restriction left in the city.

Chief Executive John Lee told lawmakers he made the decision based partly on the city’s high vaccination and infection rates, saying the local community has a strong “immunity barrier.”

“As most infected persons only suffer mild symptoms, the government should shift from a clear-cut, mandatory approach to one that allows residents to make their own decisions and take their own responsibilities when we manage the pandemic,” he said.

He said it is a step all countries make on their paths to normalcy and that Hong Kong has reached this stage now, adding that the city’s pandemic situation has not worsened since it started to reopen its border with mainland China about two weeks ago.

Edwin Tsui, the controller of the Centre for Health Protection, said people with asymptomatic infections can go out freely or return to their workplace, but infected students should not go to school until they obtain a negative test result. Those who suffer from COVID-19 symptoms should avoid leaving home, he said at a news conference.

Residents will no longer need to report to the government when they self-test positive, and doctors will be asked to only report serious cases and deaths, he added. The government will only publish daily data on the number of deaths and people who test positive using PCR tests.

“We will monitor COVID-19 similar to the way we monitor influenza. It is an endemic respiratory disease,” he said.

Hong Kong’s daily tally has fallen to about 4,000 cases from 19,700 over the past two weeks. With many infected residents only having mild symptoms, most choose to isolate at home. The figures don’t include those who never report their cases but stay at home to avoid spreading the virus to others.

The city has one government-run facility in operation for those who are unable to quarantine at home, according to a government reply to a lawmaker’s inquiries on Wednesday. A daily average of about 150 people requested to go to the facility this week, Tsui said.

Hong Kong, which once had some of the world’s strictest COVID-19 rules, has been easing its restrictions to revive its economy, including removing an isolation rule for close contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19 and vaccination requirements to enter certain types of venues.

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