Darryl Chan tested positive for Covid-19 when he landed in Hong Kong last month. More than two weeks later – and despite never showing any symptoms – he remains isolated in a hospital bed with no sign of being allowed to leave.
“I think the worst part is not knowing when I’ll be able to get out,” he said. “You’re almost feeling you are back at school, with controlled wake-up and bedtime, (and) not being able to control what you can eat.”
Hong Kong, along with mainland China, is one of the few places in the world still pursuing a zero-Covid policy. The city’s priority is reopening borders with the mainland, not the rest of the world, Hong Kong authorities have said.
That means most non-residents are banned from entering, while almost all overseas arrivals must undergo 21 days of quarantine – even if they are fully vaccinated.
Hong Kong deems travelers from the United Kingdom as a high-risk for the Omicron variant, subject to its most stringent quarantine and testing measures – which include spending the first four days at a government camp.
On December 19, Chan flew to Hong Kong from London to start a new job.
Chan said he was fully vaccinated with a booster shot and had tested negative for Covid-19 several times before his flight. He was mentally prepared for quarantine, but not for what happened next, he said.
On arrival in Hong Kong, Chan took a mandatory Covid-19 test and waited hours at the airport. His result was determined “preliminary positive,” meaning he was required to take another test. He was then moved to a cordoned-off area with a makeshift bed.
“It was definitely a bit of a shell shock,” Chan said. “Having done so many tests in the week leading up to my flight, and all of them came back negative … I didn’t ever think that I’ll actually test positive on arrival.”
Some 13 hours after his plane landed, Chan was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital for further testing. He was later confirmed to have the Omicron variant, though he remained asymptomatic.
“(I had) that feeling of dread, where you sort of go, ‘Oh, God, what’s going to happen now?’” he said. “I definitely felt quite trapped … you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to get back on a flight and go somewhere else.’ You really are just trapped there, so that was quite a scary feeling.”
It’s not just travelers who face indefinite hospitalization when they test positive for Covid-19 in Hong Kong.
In recent days, Hong Kong has identified a number of Omicron cases in a cluster linked to aircrew – breaking a nearly three-month streak of no locally transmitted Covid infections. Those confirmed infected have also been sent to the hospital.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people including more than 20 restaurant staff deemed close contacts of the positive cases have been sent to the government camp for 21 days of isolation and extensive testing. Any positive results would mean a transfer to hospital.
Anyone who attended the same premises as the positive cases at roughly the same time in recent days has also been ordered to take a test, while several residential buildings linked to the cluster have been temporarily locked down for mass testing.
As fears of local Omicron transmission grow, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday that resumption of normal travel between the city and mainland China will “have to wait for another while.”
Just before the cluster emerged, Lam reaffirmed Hong Kong’s zero-Covid stance.
“Hong Kong has been taking very stringent measures to guard against importation of cases with a view to maintaining zero local infection,” she said in a December 28 statement. “In the face of the fierce onslaught of Omicron, we need to be even more vigilant.”
Stuck in the hospital
According to Hong Kong authorities, the minimum isolation period for anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 – even if they are asymptomatic – is nearly a month. They must stay in the hospital for at least 10 days and are not allowed to leave until they test negative twice in succession – however long it takes.
But even testing negative twice doesn’t mean you can go home. After that, those under confinement orders are transferred to an isolation facility for a further 14 days.
Upon arriving at the hospital, Chan was placed in an isolation ward with two other travelers who tested positive, also with Omicron. He is confined to his room for 24 hours a day with no fresh air or outdoor exercise.
His day follows a routine set by the hospital. At 8 a.m., he is woken by a jingle on the public address system and an announcement reminding him to take his own vitals.
He receives meals provided by the hospital at fixed times. In the meantime, he spends his day connecting with family and friends on social media, and watching Netflix.
“I’d say probably early or mid-afternoon were the hardest time of the day,” he said. “In the morning, you check your emails or social media. But by the time lunch rocks around, that’s when you go, ‘I don’t really know what I’m going to do.’”
While he said his doctors have been professional, they are unable to tell him when he can be discharged. “It’s all dependent on when I stop testing positive, and then they start the final countdown from that point,” he said.
Mental toll of isolation
Since the start of the pandemic, Hong Kong has confirmed more than 12,600 cases and 213 deaths, according to government figures – far fewer than many cities of comparative size elsewhere in the world.
But while its zero-Covid approach has shielded residents from rising hospitalizations, the city has struggled with vaccine hesitancy – despite free shots being available to residents over age 3. To date, fewer than 70% of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population has taken two full doses.
Uptake has been particularly low among the elderly, a group considered most at risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19.
Instead, Hong Kong has relied on limiting group gatherings, mandatory masks in public, tracking, tracing, testing and confining close contacts and suspected cases – plus its tough border and quarantine measures.
In a statement on December 29, the Hong Kong government reiterated its stringent measures are here to stay – including its own large-scale quarantine facility.
“Recently, the global epidemic situation has worsened considerably due to the Omicron variant,” the statement said. “The Government has to stay vigilant to prevent a fifth wave epidemic or outbreak in the community. After reviewing the situation holistically and prudently, the Government deems it necessary to reserve all rooms at the PBQC [Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre] for meeting the quarantine purpose.”
Despite the city’s success in keeping Covid-19 at bay, experts say long quarantine periods often come at a cost to the mental health of those confined.
“In general, there is increased sense of isolation, anxiety, and in some severe cases, even post-traumatic stress,” said Dr. Elisabeth Wong, a psychiatrist and clinical adviser to Hong Kong-based mental health charity, Mind HK.
However, there are tips to maintain good mental health, she added.
“There are some tricks you can do, like making sure you schedule your day quite clearly,” Wong said. “So you have rest times and work times … and, as much as you can, incorporate some kind of exercise within the day.”
Rather than seeing quarantine as a punishment, she said, people going through the experience may also view it as an act of altruism. “You’re doing something good for the society,” she added.
But as his indefinite isolation period grows longer, Chan said he is worried about his mental health.
“I’m trying to rationalize it, I think just going through the processes knowing that there are certain things you can and can’t change … the only thing that I can change is how I approach it and what I do with my time,” he said.
“The best part of it, I guess, is being able to see things in a different perspective,” he added. “(I am) trying to turn it into something useful, something interesting to hopefully one day look back on and remember that time when I sat in a hospital room for X number of days.”