HONG KONG — As health officials ponder the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 infections, some areas are still in lockdown from the first one. Many are now asking if there is a better way to keep society moving while battling the coronavirus. One study claims there is — and it’s already worked in a major international city.
According to researchers in Hong Kong, a strategy focused on regular testing and contact tracing can control the spread of COVID-19 while being far less disruptive to society than a full lockdown. The study, published in The Lancet Public Health, looked at how the virus impacted the city from late January through March 31.
Researchers say the virus’s reproduction rate, the average number of people that can be infected by someone with COVID-19, did not rise during the eight-week period. Through March 31, Hong Kong had only 715 confirmed cases of the illness and four deaths in a population of about 7.5 million.
“By quickly implementing public health measures, Hong Kong has demonstrated that COVID-19 transmission can be effectively contained without resorting to the highly disruptive complete lockdown adopted by China, the USA, and Western European countries,” Professor Benjamin Cowling of the University of Hong Kong said in a statement.
According to the study, Hong Kong used a program that included intense surveillance of possible infections among both incoming travelers and the local community. Officials also tried to track down and quarantine all the people who any COVID-19 patients had seen two days before becoming sick. Anyone arriving from mainland China or another infected country were also required to stay in a 14-day quarantine at home or at designated facility before entering. Social distancing, flexible work schedules, and school closures were also used to help stop the spread.
“If these measures and population responses can be sustained, while avoiding fatigue among the general population, they could substantially lessen the impact of a local COVID-19 epidemic,” Cowling added.
Fighting The Flu Too
Researchers say the policies had a bonus effect on public health by dramatically lowering the spread of the flu this year. The transmission rate of influenza in February dropped 44 percent after Hong Kong began closing its schools.
That drop was much greater than the 10 to 15 percent decrease when schools were shuttered during the H1N1-flu pandemic of 2009. Researchers say the added precautions tied to the coronavirus are having a big impact on curbing other illnesses.
“The speed of decline in influenza activity in 2020 was quicker than in previous years when only school closures were implemented, suggesting that other social distancing measures and avoidance behaviors have had a substantial additional impact on influenza transmission,” study co-author Dr. Peng Wu said.
Hong Kong Learned Fast From Past Epidemics
The authors believe Hong Kong’s history dealing with outbreaks helped them come up with a more effective strategy than other coronavirus hotspots. Dr. Wu says the 2003 SARS epidemic helped not only hospitals, but the general population prepare for a citywide health emergency.
“Improved testing and hospital capacity to handle novel respiratory pathogens, and a population acutely aware of the need to improve personal hygiene and maintain physical distancing, put them in good stead,” Wu explained.
In comparison to another international metropolis, New York City — which remains under lockdown — has suffered more 16,000 deaths during the global pandemic to date.