Covid News: N.Y.C. Reports Spread of BA.2 Version of Omicron

Credit…Billy H.C. Kwok for The New York Times

Hong Kong said that more than one million people in the city of 7.5 million had tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, a worrying milestone for a city being battered by an extraordinarily lethal Omicron wave.

Hong Kong health officials said in a news conference on Friday that they had recorded 20,082 daily new cases and 206 new deaths, bringing the cumulative totals to more than 1,010,000 cases and more than 5,000 deaths.

New reported cases by day

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

While other places in Asia like China, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam are experiencing similar case waves driven by Omicron, Hong Kong’s death rate is high, far outstripping that of mainland China, which has reported a total of about 4,600 deaths in a population of over 1.4 billion. Almost 95 percent of the city’s deaths have come in the past 30 days, government data show.

Hong Kong was once viewed as a world leader in controlling the coronavirus crisis. But despite limits on public gatherings, restrictions on nighttime dining and mask mandates, a wave of Omicron cases that began late last year has overwhelmed its health care system, leading to bodies of the dead being piled up in hospitals.

In the past two weeks, Hong Kong has recorded about 65 percent of cases that it has ever had, government data show. Experts have said that figure is most likely an undercount. Using models, researchers at the University of Hong Kong estimated this week that at least 3.6 million people had been infected. Up to 4.5 million people may get the virus before the current outbreak ends, they added.

The outbreak involves the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, which is more transmissible than Omicron’s first version, BA.1, though not necessarily more virulent. Researchers in Britain and Denmark have found that BA.2 is no more likely to cause hospitalizations, but studies elsewhere are ongoing.

Other factors in Hong Kong’s surge are also at play: The city is densely populated, and has a low vaccination rate among those 70 and older and residents of nursing homes. Its success in keeping the virus at bay until recently has also left many residents without any enhanced immunity.

Hong Kong’s government is caught between the surging cases and deaths, pressure from Beijing for mass testing and lockdowns, and pandemic fatigue among residents. On Thursday, Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, said at a news conference that she would move up the review of its current measures planned for April 20 to as soon as next week and reconsider its flight bans, compulsory testing and mandatory quarantines for travelers. “I have a very strong feeling that people’s tolerance is fading,” she said.

Hong Kong’s case data included results from rapid antigen tests, officials said, which the government has accepted in lieu of P.C.R. test results since last month to expand testing capacity. Residents who test positive with rapid antigen tests have not had to seek confirmation with P.C.R. tests. But the government has also asked them to self-report their infections, or face legal consequences. Those who receive a positive result from a rapid antigen test may be randomly requested to be administered a P.C.R. test, officials said.

At a news conference on Friday, Ms. Lam underscored the urgency of reporting home tests to health authorities. “If there are people blatantly refusing to comply, then isn’t it incumbent upon the law enforcement body to do something?” she said.

Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering, which has supplied the raw numbers for Our World in Data and The New York Times’s coronavirus world map, has reported fewer cases than the Hong Kong government.

New reported cases by day

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

The difference is because the center has not been including results from the city’s rapid antigen tests in its total, but in an email on Friday, it said it intended to incorporate them in the future.