HONG KONG: Hong Kong reported 44 new COVID-19 cases on Monday (Aug 17) as the government announced an extension to social distancing measures aimed at controlling further spreading of the coronavirus, which has seen a resurgence in the Asian financial hub since early July.
Out of the 44 cases, 31 of them were local transmissions. Monday's figure was down from Sunday's 74 cases.
While the number of daily cases have come down from triple digits in recent weeks, authorities have cautioned residents from becoming complacent, warning that the situation remained "severe".
Restrictions including a ban on dining at restaurants from 6pm and the mandating of masks in all outdoor public areas are set to remain in force for a further seven days until Aug 25, the government said in a statement on Monday.
"In extending the social distancing measures, the government has balanced the oft competing factors of public health protection, economic impact and social acceptance," said a food and health bureau spokesperson.
"At present, the severe epidemic situation does not allow any room to relax the social distancing measures."
UNKNOWN TRANSMISSIONS "STUBBORNLY HIGH"
The government is worried that the proportion of new cases with unknown transmission remains "stubbornly high" at around 40 per cent, despite extensive testing.
And in spite of border control and social distancing measures in place since mid-July, the current wave of cases is "declining slowly".
"Unlike the second wave which was brought about mainly by imported cases of returnees, the third wave is characterised by community infection with a widespread distribution geographically and across sectors," said the Hong Kong government.
"The latest virus strain is observed to have higher transmissibility, and its spread to elderly homes and elderly or chronic disease patients has brought about a rising mortality rate."
The government added that new and growing clusters among workers, such as in dormitories for foreign domestic helpers and a port workplace, suggest a "considerably high" risk of an explosive community outbreak and a rebound in cases.
Since late January, more than 4,500 people have been infected in Hong Kong, 69 of whom have died.
PREPARE FOR "4TH WAVE OR WINTER SURGE"
A spokesperson for the food and health bureau appealed for the public's continuing cooperation, while reassuring people of the government's containment efforts.
"We understand that people are getting impatient over the prolonged quasi-lockdowns and they wish to start resuming social and economic activities. However, it is not yet the time for relaxation and there is no room for complacency in epidemic control," he said.
Surveillance and testing have been ramped up significantly, with more than 700,000 tests conducted since early July, compared to about 350,000 tests from January to June.
Hong Kong will expand testing for high-risk and high-exposure target groups, which started in mid-July.
These include elderly home employees, taxi and public light bus drivers, restaurant and market stall workers, frontline property management staff members, and foreign domestic helpers staying in boarding facilities.
Testing and quarantine arrangements for air and sea crew members have also been tightened.
Yet these measures alone cannot stop community transmissions "when new cases remain at a high level and are distributed across different locations and sectors", said the city's government.
The spokesperson said Hong Kong is also looking to launch "universal community testing" and build an interim hospital alongside further community treatment facilities with Beijing's help.
These are aimed at putting Hong Kong in a position to ease restrictions and allow economic and social activities to resume, as well as to prepare the city for a possible "fourth wave or a winter surge", he added.