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Hong Kong is facing a severe outbreak of Omicron cases

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Hong Kong is struggling to contain its most severe COVID-19 outbreak yet. Daily cases in the city have soared, topping 6,000 on two different days this past week from around 100 about a month ago. And it's happening in a place where the government had tried to pursue a zero-COVID policy. NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch has been following the situation and joins us to help make sense of it all. Good morning, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

GONYEA: So what's the latest? And why have things gotten so bad in Hong Kong? I thought China kind of had the pandemic under control.

RUWITCH: You're right. I mean, the pandemic has largely been under control in China. And Hong Kong is a part of China, but it's run separately for the most part, of course. Hong Kong was trying to follow a version of zero-COVID like the mainland. They called it dynamic zero in Hong Kong. But it meant tight borders, smothering of, you know, even the tiniest outbreaks whenever they popped up, tracing pretty much every case. And as you're probably aware, they even went after hamsters a couple weeks ago when a pet shop worker turned up positive. Hong Kong had hoped to stay in step with the mainland. The goal was to, you know, eventually open the border with China when cases fell down to zero. But the omicron variant seems to have, you know, simply overwhelmed Hong Kong's defenses. It just spread faster than they could pick it up.

GONYEA: So is this the end of zero-COVID for Hong Kong?

RUWITCH: Well, that's a tough question. The chief executive, Carrie Lam, says, you know her policies and measures are going to adapt with the outbreak going forward. You know, the Hong Kong authorities have really been in a tough spot, though, because Hong Kong is this global finance and business hub, but it's also part of China. I asked Ho-Fung Hung about this. He's a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

HO-FUNG HUNG: They face the pressure from both sides, pull by both sides. Beijing is emphasizing the zero-COVID, and the international business community really want Hong Kong to open up. And, in the end, that they're caught in the middle.

RUWITCH: Yeah. And they've found that you really can't do both. Opening up means living with the virus, treating it as endemic. Zero-COVID means keeping restrictions in place. There's also one additional factor and sort of a problem that Hong Kong faces, and that's vaccination. They only have about 65% of the population vaccinated. It's even less among the elderly. And many of the people in Hong Kong were given the Sinovac vaccine, which is made in China, and there's some data that suggests that it might not do much against omicron.

GONYEA: So with the number of cases just skyrocketing, how has the government been responding?

RUWITCH: Well, they're pulling out all the stops now. Turning point came earlier this week when Chinese leader Xi Jinping weighed in on the situation. He said controlling the pandemic was really the overriding task at present for the Hong Kong government. So the government has designated thousands of hotel rooms for quarantining positive cases. They've carved out this little mini fleet of several hundred taxis just for transporting infected people around. They're trying to increase testing capacity and have this plan to get the whole city of more than 7 million people tested. There were pictures circulating online of patients, you know, bundled up in blankets being kept outside of hospitals, even sleeping overnight there while waiting for treatment. The government's moving them all indoors now. And on Friday, it announced that it's going to postpone an election that was scheduled for March in order to focus on the pandemic.

GONYEA: We have seen surges of omicron elsewhere. They tend to peak and then fall quickly. Has this one peaked?

RUWITCH: Experts do not think it's peaked. Some say we could get, you know, tens of thousands of infections a day before things really start to stabilize. The problem is that public hospitals are near capacity now, so that raises the question of how the government's going to cope. In the mainland, they've often sealed off cities completely when cases have popped up. Carrie Lam, the leader of Hong Kong, has said, no - this week - that's not going to happen. But this wave seems to still be accelerating.

GONYEA: NPR's John Ruwitch. Thanks, John.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.