‘I don’t dare get the shot’: virus ravages older Hong Kong people without vaccination

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‘I don’t dare get the shot’: virus ravages older Hong Kong people without vaccination

HONG KONG – For two years, Hong Kong had avoided a major coronavirus outbreak with tight border controls and strict social distancing measures. Then Omicron began an explosion of infections, blaming the city’s failure to prepare for the worst of its older – and most at-risk – residents.

Within weeks, the outbreak quickly overwhelmed Hong Kong’s world-class medical system. A large number of ambulances arrived in emergency units. Hospitals ran out of beds in isolation wards. Patients waited in gurneys on sidewalks and in parking lots as emergency blankets were provided for warmth during the coldest and hottest times of the year.

Hong Kong’s early success in containing the pandemic was the starting point of a complacency that could now have deadly consequences. Social workers and experts say officials have moved too slowly to prepare for a wider outbreak, and have done little to address misinformation about vaccines. For many of the city’s one million residents, who are 70 or older, the risk of getting sick had long seemed so low that they avoided getting vaccinated.

Before the current outbreak, less than half of people in that age group were vaccinated. According to the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, among residents of care homes, the rate was only less than 20 percent. Now they are bearing the brunt of the city’s worst outbreak. More than 200 people have died from Covid this month, many of whom were over 70 and unrelated.

Hesitation over vaccines has been attributed to misinformation about the potential side effects and efficacy of vaccines, as well as a high level of public mistrust of the government. But Hong Kong recorded more deaths in just two weeks than in the previous two years, with some residents reluctant to vaccinate.

“I worry that the side effects of vaccination will kill me,” said Lam Suk-ha, an 80-year-old resident who stopped to talk at a restaurant in the working-class neighborhood of North Point. on Wednesday. “Sure, I wouldn’t dare to take the shot.”

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

In recent days health officials have repeatedly urged older people to be vaccinated and they are Working to accelerate the vaccination of residents in care homes. The government also implemented rules requiring proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, malls and supermarkets. These measures have helped: Now, three-quarters of people in their 70s and nearly half of those in their 80s or older have received at least one shot.

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The need for vaccine entry was what eventually persuaded 73-year-old Ella Chan to get her first shot this week. She said that she was initially hesitant because she had a cold, and then continued to read it because of the reports she had read that worried her.

“I didn’t want to get vaccinated then because I read the newspaper and I had many worries, and I kept pushing it back and forth,” Ms Chan said as she left a government building in North Point, where she Got him vaccinated.

Such concerns point to misinformation about vaccines that has spread rapidly in Hong Kong, where residents can choose between vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech or a vaccine developed by a private Chinese company, Sinovac.

Rare reports of post-vaccination deaths turned into rumors about the dangers of vaccines that circulated widely on WhatsApp groups and social media, even though officials did not attribute any fatalities to either vaccine. Is.

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

“When that misinformation is circulating and no one comes forward to clarify the information, and we have so few cases, people wonder, ‘Why would I take the risk? Mr Lum said. Some residents of the semi-autonomous Chinese city were also suspicious of the government’s promotion of Chinese-made vaccines. “People realized that the government had a political reason to pursue Sinovac,” he said.

about five million. The situation in Hong Kong is particularly striking in comparison to the island of Singapore. Where 95 percent of people aged 70 and above are vaccinated. Ho Ching, the wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, urged Hong Kong older people to “set aside their distrust or distrust of the government, their memories of their flight from China, or any other reason for their distrust of the authorities.” “

In part, the government’s cautious approach to vaccination has raised concerns about the risks. For example, in March last year, officials noted that people with “undiagnosed serious chronic diseases” should not be given the Sinovac vaccine and urged residents who are ill due to their medical conditions to consult with their doctors before getting vaccinated. were not sure about.

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“The fear of vaccination took hold and was reinforced by the health care system,” said Karen Grapin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in economics and health systems. “We created the idea that people needed to be healthy candidates for vaccination.”

Now, officials are scrambling to protect the older residents, but that only solves one problem. Nursing home operators and social workers say that the lack of preparedness on the part of the government for the explosion in cases has created unnecessary panic. When public hospitals ran out of beds, care homes did not have the staff or equipment to care for the sick, nor did they have 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 been reported in several homes in recent weeks, industry executives say. In meetings with representatives of nearly 300 households this week, more than 70 percent said they had reported cases of Covid among residents or staff members, said Joe Chan, secretary of the Hong Kong Elderly Services Association, an industry group.

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

Chua Hoi-wai, chief executive of the Hong Kong Council of Social Services, said the Hong Kong government had not yet issued official guidelines to nursing homes on how to control an outbreak. Despite it being two years to prepare for such an event, the rapid spread took many by surprise.

“No one ever expected that we would have so many confirmed cases in so many weeks,” Mr Chua said. Some care facilities, he said, are waiting up to a month for public health workers to arrive and take shots.

Until the government makes vaccinations mandatory, the attitude of Hong Kong residents like 80-year-old Ms Lam cannot be tempered by the spiraling outbreak.

“I won’t get vaccinated until I have a choice,” Ms Lam said. “Let the youth shoot.”

joy dong Contributed to reporting.

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