With widespread testing, contact tracing and population behavioural changes Hong Kong appears to have managed to contain the first wave of COVID-19 without resorting to drastic measures like complete lockdown which now threaten to damage economies of several countries around the world, say scientists in a Lancet study.
A combination of border entry restrictions, quarantine and isolation of cases and contacts, together with some degree of social distancing helped the city with 7.5 million population avert a major COVID-19 outbreak up to March 31, said the study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.
“By quickly implementing public health measures, Hong Kong has demonstrated that COVID-19 transmission can be effectively contained without resorting to the highly disruptive complete lockdown adopted by China, the USA, and Western European countries,” said Professor Benjamin Cowling from the University of Hong Kong who led the research.
“Other governments can learn from the success of Hong Kong. If these measures and population responses can be sustained, while avoiding fatigue among the general population, they could substantially lessen the impact of a local COVID-19 epidemic.”
The study estimates that the rate at which the virus is transmitted — known as the effective reproductive number, or the average number of people each individual with the virus is likely to infect at a given moment — has remained at approximately 1 in the 8 weeks since early February, after public health measures were implemented from late January onwards, indicating that the epidemic in Hong Kong is holding steady.
As of March 31, Hong Kong had 715 confirmed COVID-19 cases including 94 asymptomatic infections, and 4 deaths.
The public health measures implemented to suppress local transmission in Hong Kong are probably feasible in many locations worldwide, and could be rolled out in other countries with sufficient resources, the researchers said.
The control measures implemented in Hong Kong in late January included intense surveillance for infections, not only for incoming travellers, but also in the local community, with around 400 outpatients and 600 inpatients tested every day in early March.
Extensive efforts were also made to track down and quarantine all close contacts an infected person had seen two days before becoming ill, and holiday camps and newly built housing estates were repurposed into quarantine facilities.
Additionally, anyone crossing the border from mainland China, as well as travellers from infected countries, were required to undergo 14 days of quarantine at home or in designated facilities.
The government also deployed measures to encourage social distancing including flexible working arrangements and school closures, and many large-scale events were cancelled.
In the study, researchers analysed data on laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong between late January and 31 March, 2020, to estimate the daily effective reproductive number (Rt) for COVID-19, and changes in transmissibility over time.
To examine whether control measures have been associated with reducing silent transmission of COVID-19 (ie, transmission in the community from people never diagnosed), researchers also analysed influenza surveillance data in outpatients of all ages and influenza hospitalisations in children, as a proxy for changes in COVID-19 transmission — assuming a similar mode and efficiency of spread between influenza and COVID-19.
The researchers also conducted three cross-sectional telephone surveys among the general adult population (aged 18 and older) of Hong Kong to assess attitudes to COVID-19 and changes in behaviours on January 20-23 (1,008 respondents), February 11-14 (1,000), and March 10-13 (1,005).
Further analyses suggest that individual behaviours in the Hong Kong population have changed in response to COVID-19.
In the most recent (March) survey, 85 per cent of respondents reported avoiding crowded places, and 99 per cent reported wearing face masks when leaving home — up from 75 per cent and 61 per cent respectively from the first survey in January.
In the early days of the outbreak, Hong Kong was thought to be at a major risk due to high footfalls of travellers from mainland China. But the spread of the disease appears to be under control since early February.
The city has so far (up to April 18) reported 1,022 coronavirus cases and four deaths.