Hong Kong urged to release quarantined swine flu hotel guests

May 4th, 2009 - 11:49 am ICT by IANS  

Hong Kong, May 4 (DPA) The Hong Kong government Monday faced growing pressure to release 300 guests and staff quarantined for seven days in a hotel where East Asia’s first swine flu patient stayed.
Tensions have been rising at the Metropark Hotel, sealed off by armed police and medics in protective clothing since Friday when a 25-year-old Mexican guest was confirmed as having swine flu.

The move has been slammed by experts and quarantined guests as an overreaction as the threat of a global pandemic appeared to be ebbing. The Mexican man by Monday had made a full recovery.

As conditions worsened with guests complaining that their rooms had not been cleaned or bedding changed since Friday, the government insisted everyone inside would stay quarantined until Friday.

One quarantined guest, Indian businessman Kevin Ireland, 45, told the DPA by telephone that the lock-in appeared pointless as delivery people were allowed in and out of the hotel.

“I ordered a pizza and handed my money to the policeman with gloves on who gave it to the pizza delivery man who didn’t have gloves on,” he said. “What kind of quarantine is that?

“The same thing happened with 20 other people who placed outside orders for batteries, cigarettes, beer and takeaway dinners.

“Nobody seems to understand what kind of quarantine this is. We are all hanging around together, there is no restriction from going from room to room. We are all congregating in the lobby for meals.”

He also complained of a lack of information from authorities. “We are being given absolutely no information, and people are getting very fed up,” he said. “The confinement hasn’t got to all of us yet, but it will.”

Another quarantined guest, a Korean businessman called Jimmy, phoned a local radio station to complain about the lock-in, saying it would lose him a lucrative contact he was due to sign Monday.

“I told the police even if it means I’ll die, I want to go out,” he said in an emotional call. “I don’t want to die in this lousy hotel.”

Infectious disease expert Lo Wing-lok said the government had taken the wrong decision by locking up the guests at the hotel and appeared to be overreacting, possibly because of its experience with the deadly 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

Nearly 300 people died and around 1,800 were infected when SARS spread to Hong Kong from southern China through an infected patient who stayed in another hotel in the city, ironically in the same hotel chain as the Metropark.

“The hotel represents just one point of the whole route this Mexican gentleman passed through from the plane cabin to the isolation unit at the hospital,” Lo said.

“Along the way, he has been into contact with quite a few people,” Lo added. “Most of these people cannot be identified.”

But the infectious disease expert pointed out a much different reaction among those people who could be identified, for instance the other passengers on the plane to Hong Kong with the Mexican patient and the hotel guests.

“The plane cabin is much more crowded than a spacious hotel, so what is the reason for releasing these people into town but at the same time keeping tourists and people in the hotel when they have had no contact at all with this particular gentleman?” Lo asked.

“There isn’t any logical rationale,” Lo said. “Isolating one point of the chain is just for show.”

However, the chief executive of Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority, Shane Soloman, defended the quarantine of the hotel, saying: “We are definitely not out of the woods yet.

“We had a unique opportunity here to prevent the spread (of swine flu at the outset). What we are trying to do here is delay the onset until we know more about the virus. I guess we are all being cautious, and if we can delay to summer, there is a better chance of a vaccine being available.”

No other cases of swine flu have been detected in Hong Kong since the Mexican man was diagnosed. Ten people were tested and cleared over the weekend, and five others were undergoing tests Monday.

Mexico has been the country that has borne the brunt of the outbreak with 22 deaths and 590 confirmed cases. East Asia’s only other swine flu case was a 51-year-old nun in South Korea who had recently visited Mexico.

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