Cathay: Virus outbreak causes anxiety for customers

Hong Kong – A Cathay Pacific flight attendant and six more members of a tour group that recently visited Egypt were among the nine new Covid-19 cases confirmed in Hong Kong on Wednesday, taking the city total to 129.

A government announcement late on Wednesday confirmed that all eight travelers from the tour group, together with the guide, had been infected with the deadly corona virus, as the health authorities scrambled to trace those in close contact with them

The number of infection cases worldwide has surpassed 118,200, with Italy the worst-hit country outside of China, as governments across the world imposed stringent travel restrictions to reduce the risk of contagion.

The reaction has triggered a wave of cancellations of tours to Europe from major travel agencies in Hong Kong, affecting hundreds of holidaymakers.

The 22-year-old infected Cathay flight attendant, who returned to the city on flight CX320 from Madrid on March 8, is the first confirmed case in the aviation industry in Hong Kong.

“She served more than 10 or 20 rows [of passengers], in certain sections of the cabin. We will trace passengers she has served during the flight and those who worked closely with her,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan from the Centre for Health Protection.

“The most important lesson learned is that, if staff have symptoms, even just mild symptoms, try to avoid going to work.”

The flight attendant visited Amsterdam from February 21 to 24, before returning to Hong Kong and later flying to Madrid, Chuang added.

In a statement, Cathay said it understood the outbreak had caused anxiety for employees and customers. It has told all crew on that flight to stay home for now, check their temperatures regularly and watch out for symptoms. The aircraft has been sent for deep cleaning.

The infected flight attendant lives in Mau Lam House, Kwong Lam Court in Sha Tin. A mainland Chinese traveler on the same flight, CX320, was confirmed as infected earlier.

Before Wednesday’s announcement, three travelers from the Egypt tour group, including a Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) employee, were formally diagnosed with Covid-19.

The government announcement late on Wednesday showed that all eight travelers were infected, along with the tour guide.

The first new case in that group is a 57-year-old FEHD employee who lived in the Bellagio in Tsing Yi, but worked at the Cheung Chau Municipal Services Building.

He returned to work on Tuesday after the overseas trip and dined with colleagues. His 52-year-old wife is the second case.

The FEHD has arranged for co-workers in close contact with him to be quarantined in government facilities. Their office will be disinfected.

The third new infection from the group is a 59-year-old woman, the wife of the FEHD employee who was diagnosed earlier. They live in the Fu Heng Estate in Tai Po.

The fourth is the Egypt tour guide from Sunflower Travel Service, who lived in Telford Garden in Kowloon Bay. Though he has not visited the agency’s office after his return, he has eaten with friends, who will now be traced by the health authorities.

The fifth and sixth confirmed on Wednesday are a retired couple, both aged 63, who lived in the Laguna City in Lam Tin.

Of the two other new cases not from the Egypt group, one is the daughter of a man infected earlier. Before she tested positive on Wednesday, she was staying in a government quarantine center for 14 days until March 1 because she was a close contact of an infected person.

Her case stands out because her incubation period was 21 days, longer than the usual 14 days.

“A published study has found that, among 100 infections, one has an incubation period of more than 14 days,” said Chuang.

She stressed that a quarantine period of 14 days was suitable, as practicalities must be also be considered.

The other non-tour group case from Wednesday is a 31-year-old woman who took Cathay Pacific flight CX250 from London to Hong Kong on February 29.

On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government announced it was extending travel restrictions to people arriving from La Rioja, Madrid, and the Basque Country in Spain, as well as all of Italy, the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and Grand Est regions in France, North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, and Hokkaido in Japan.

The restrictions were expected to come into effect at midnight on Friday.

Arrivals from those places would be placed in mandatory quarantine in government facilities for 14 days.

Chinese University respiratory medicine expert Professor David Hui Shu-cheong described the measures as “timely and prudent”.

“Quarantine centers are preferred to home quarantines for these people because more surveillance tests like deep throat saliva samples are taken there,” he told a radio program on Wednesday.

He said if the number of people returning from those regions exceeded the capacity of quarantine camps, then some could be placed in these centers for the first 10 days, and the final four days at home. But Hui conceded the measure relied on honest reporting by travelers who might not come back directly from those affected countries.

“Therefore, the penalty for false declaration must be clearly stated in both the written and electronic forms,” he said.

Separately, the Hong Kong Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service said it had updated its blood donation policies. People who have been to areas with active transmission of Covid-19 in the community would need to suspend blood donation for 28 days after departing there.

Areas with the restricted measures included mainland China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and Grand Est in France, North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, Madrid, La Rioja and Basque Country in Spain, and Hokkaido in Japan.

Constitutional affairs minister Patrick Nip Tak-kuen said earlier that he and four other government officials who had been to Wuhan to oversee the airlift of stranded Hong Kongers from the outbreak’s epicenter had tested negative for the virus and would return to work on Wednesday. (SCMP)