AP PHOTOS: Inflatable labs in Hong Kong for mass COVID tests

March 3, 2022 GMT

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong has ramped up its testing capacity with the help of inflatable mobile laboratories, as the city grapples with tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases daily.

The labs arrived from mainland China ahead of a planned city-wide testing of its more than 7 million residents later this month.

It’s part of a “zero-tolerance” COVID-19 strategy enforced in China, and one that Beijing had pressed upon Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory that’s been struggling to contain a surge driven by the omicron variant.

Several of the mobile labs have been set up across the city with each equipped to handle tens of thousands of samples daily. They’re often deployed in mainland China, which seals off entire neighborhoods — and sometimes cities — for mass-testing when cases are detected, until every resident is cleared from infection.

In Hong Kong, the plan is to test every resident three times. Authorities said they may restrict their movements to reduce the risk of transmission.

Everyone testing positive must be admitted to a hospital or isolation facility, depending on the severity of symptoms.

The current wave of infections, the worst so far, has overwhelmed hospitals, leading to long lines stretching out the door and patients waiting in holding areas. Authorities are rushing to build temporary isolation facilities.

According to Our World in Data, as of March 2, Hong Kong had reported a seven-day rolling average of nearly 15 deaths per million people – the highest in the world.

Public mortuaries have been filled to capacity, and authorities plan to resort to refrigerated containers to temporarily store the bodies.

Part of the reason for the bleak situation lies in Hong Kong’s low vaccination rate, which lags behind many countries. Currently, only about 77% of its population have received both doses of a vaccine, compared to 92% in Singapore, and over 80% in Japan, Canada and mainland China.

Authorities struggled to convince particularly the elderly to get inoculated, after a string of post-vaccine deaths spooked many. Only about one in three residents above the age of 80 have been fully vaccinated.

Since the pandemic began, Hong Kong has reported over 1,100 deaths, with 80% of those in the current, fifth wave. A majority of the deaths are unvaccinated elderly patients.

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