‘I dare not get vaccinated’: Virus ravages unvaccinated elderly Hong Kongers

HONG KONG — For two years, Hong Kong has largely avoided a major coronavirus outbreak thanks to strict border controls and strict social distancing measures. Then, Omicron unleashed an explosion of infections, revealing the city’s failure to prepare its oldest — and most at risk — residents for the worst.

Within weeks, the outbreak quickly overwhelmed Hong Kong’s world-class medical system. Ambulances arrived en masse at emergency units. Hospitals have run out of beds in isolation wards. Patients waited in stretchers on sidewalks and in parking lots, receiving emergency blankets for warmth during the coldest and wettest time of year.

Hong Kong’s early success in keeping the pandemic at bay was the start of a complacency that is now having deadly consequences. Authorities have moved too slowly to prepare for a wider outbreak and done too little to tackle misinformation around vaccines, social workers and experts say. For many of the city’s one million residents aged 70 or over, the risk of getting sick has long seemed so low that they avoided getting vaccinated.

Before the current epidemic, less than half of people in this age group were vaccinated. Among nursing home residents, the rate was even lower, at just 20%, according to the Hong Kong Social Services Board. Now they bear the brunt of the city’s worst epidemic. More than 200 people have died this month from Covid, many of whom were over 70 and unvaccinated.

Vaccine hesitancy has been attributed to misinformation about the potential side effects and effectiveness of vaccines, as well as a high level of public distrust of the government. But even as Hong Kong recorded more deaths in just over two weeks than in the past two years, some residents remained reluctant to get vaccinated.

“I fear the side effects of the vaccination will kill me,” said Lam Suk-haa, an 80-year-old resident who stopped to speak on her way to a restaurant in the working-class North Point neighborhood. Wednesday. “Of course, I don’t dare get shot.”

Ms Lam said she was skeptical of Western medicine in general. She also said she heard on TV that people like her with high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels could be at risk of serious side effects from vaccination. (In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends older people with medical conditions get vaccinated to reduce the risk of serious illness.)

In recent days, health officials have repeatedly urged older people to get vaccinated and are working to speed up the vaccination of care home residents. The government has also imposed rules requiring proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, shopping malls and supermarkets. These measures have helped: Today, three-quarters of people aged 70 and almost half of those aged 80 or over have received at least one injection.

The vaccine entry requirement is what finally persuaded Ella Chan, 73, to get her first shot this week. She said she was initially hesitant because she had a cold, then continued to postpone because of reports she had read that had worried her.

“I didn’t want to get vaccinated at the time because I had read the newspapers and had a lot of worries, and I kept putting it off until now,” Ms Chan said as she left. a government building in North Point where she got her vaccination.

These concerns underscore the vaccine misinformation that has spread rapidly in Hong Kong, where residents can choose between the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech or one developed by Sinovac, a private Chinese company.

Infrequent reports of deaths following inoculations have turned into rumors about the dangers of vaccines that have circulated widely on WhatsApp groups and social media, even though officials have not attributed any of the deaths to one. either of the vaccines.

Terry Lum, professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong, said the government had been slow to correct misconceptions about the effectiveness of vaccines and their side effects. He said many older residents thought the Sinovac vaccine was not effective and the BioNTech vaccine caused many serious side effects.

“When this misinformation is circulating and no one comes out to clarify the information, and we have such low cases, people are like, ‘Why should I take the risk? ‘” Mr. Lum said. Some residents of the semi-autonomous Chinese city were also wary of the government’s promotion of Chinese-made vaccines. “People felt there was a political reason for the government to push Sinovac,” he said.

The situation in Hong Kong is striking, especially when compared to Singapore, an island of around five million people. people where 95% of people aged 70 and over are vaccinated. Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, took to Facebook to urge Hong Kong’s elderly to ‘put aside their mistrust or mistrust of the government, their memories of fleeing of China or any other reason for distrust of the authorities”. .”

To some extent, the government’s cautious approach to early vaccination may have fueled concerns about the risks. In March last year, for example, officials noted that the Sinovac vaccine should not be given to people with “serious uncontrolled chronic illnesses” and urged residents who were unsure of their health status. health to consult their doctor before getting vaccinated.

“The fear around vaccination set in and it was reinforced by the health system,” said Karen Grepin, Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong, specializing in health economics and systems. “We created this idea that people had to become healthy candidates to get vaccinated.”

Now authorities are scrambling to protect more older residents, but that only solves one problem. Care home operators and social workers say the government’s lack of preparedness for the explosion in cases has created unnecessary chaos. When public hospitals ran out of beds, nursing homes had neither the staff nor the equipment to care for those who fell ill, nor the space to isolate them from the rest of the residents.

Nursing homes in Hong Kong have been closed to visitors since last fall. Still, cases have emerged in many homes in recent weeks, according to industry officials. In meetings of representatives from some 300 homes this week, more than 70% said they had recorded Covid cases among residents or staff, said Joe Chan, secretary of the Hong Elder Services Association. Kong, an industrial group.

“For us, the current situation is really not healthy,” said Mr. Chan, who is also managing director of Granyet Elderly Care Group, which runs six homes with 640 beds. “There are no quarantine centers for our staff or close contact with the cases. All are stuck in nursing homes, which is not a good environment.

The Hong Kong government has yet to issue official guidelines for nursing homes on how to handle an outbreak, said Chua Hoi-wai, chief executive of the Hong Kong Council for Social Services. Although they had two years to prepare for such an event, the rapid spread surprised many.

“No one ever expected that we would have so many confirmed cases in so few weeks,” Chua said. Some healthcare facilities, he said, are considering waiting up to a month for public health workers to visit and administer injections.

The spiraling outbreak may not influence the attitudes of Hong Kong residents like Ms Lam, the 80-year-old woman who has yet to receive the vaccine, unless the government makes vaccinations compulsory.

“I will not get vaccinated as long as I have a choice,” Ms Lam said. “Let the young people get vaccinated.”

Joy Dong contributed report.

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