The Government announces today (April 10) that all household contacts of confirmed Atypical Pneumonia (AP) patients would be required to confine themselves at home for up to 10 days with immediate effect.
The Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, said the purpose of imposing this requirement, by virtue of Regulation 11 of the Prevention of the Spread of Infectious Diseases Regulations, was to facilitate early detection and treatment of AP and to reduce to the absolute minimum the risk of spreading the disease further.
He said people who had been in household contact with confirmed victims of the disease could choose between staying at home for up to 10 days or moving into holiday camps.
During the confinement period, they will not be allowed to have visitors into the flats. Permission to go out will be granted only on exceptional grounds.
The Department of Health will conduct medical checks on people who are shut in and closely monitor their state of health. There will also be compliance checks conducted by the Police initially and by Department of Health surveillance staff when deployment is made available at a later stage.
Household contacts who are already under close monitoring at designated clinics, according to the earlier Government order, would not be required to go into home confinement if there are only two or three days before the end of their 10-day surveillance period, Dr Yeoh said.
But the new measure will cover all patients' household contacts whose surveillance period ends on or after April 14.
People who are affected by the home confinement requirement would receive a letter from the Department of Health. They would also be contacted immediately by the Home Affairs Department, which would also take charge of arranging special help when needed.
Director of Health Dr Margaret Chan estimated that initially 70 to 80 households, representing a total of about 150 people, would be affected.
Dr Yeoh said this was the first time in recent history Hong Kong had invoked the powers to confine people in their homes, and such powers had to be exercised "most carefully, sensibly and responsibly."
"Events in the past few days have indicated that the community accepts isolation arrangements despite the inconvenience it caused to the affected individuals," he said. "We believe that, with the community's support, the time is ripe for us to go one step further to help contain the spread of the disease."
He appealed to the public to support families who come under the home confinement order and not to discriminate against them.
"The risk of infecting household contacts based on evidence to date is not very high. The rate of infection is estimated to be below five per cent. This is only an extra precautionary measure that we take. The family members of patients do not pose a clear and present danger to their neighbouring community."
Dr Yeoh also noted demands from some members of the public for the Government to disclose the names of buildings in which patients with atypical pneumonia resided.
"To tie in with the new measure of home confinement and in order to avoid any further speculation on this matter, we have decided to place the names of the buildings in which there have been confirmed cases of the disease on the Health Department's website," he said.
"We completely understand the anxiety over this matter," he added "but I would like to appeal to the community not to discriminate against the household contacts of these individuals because they generally do not pose a risk to others. The risk to the individuals is when the patients get sick and by the time the patient has been identified and admitted to hospital, the greatest danger has already passed."
Dr Yeoh said families placed in confinement would need help from relatives, friends and neighbours, mainly to buy food and daily necessities and deliver them to the door. If any family needs help in making purchases, the Government will act as a conduit to engage private sector suppliers or non-governmental organisations to provide and deliver what is needed. In case of real hardship, the Government will provide direct assistance.
Dr Yeoh emphasised that the community should give support to these families. "They will need the community's understanding that they are not, they must not, be treated as if they are contagious. These people are ordinary people like you and me. Some of them may be your friends and relatives. They are unfortunately the victims of circumstance and they must be given the dignity they rightly deserve in getting through this very difficult period."
Dr Yeoh said he hoped the AP crisis would bring out the best in Hong Kong people. "This is a difficult time for everyone. But it is indeed a time that we should co-operate to make this measure work. I believe the AP crisis will bring out the best of Hong Kong people."
End/Thursday, April 10, 2003