What Hong Kong can teach us about easing social distancing

Commercial immobility makes employers restless and warm weather has the same effect on everyone else. 

In reaction, experts of every discipline are working tirelessly to locate a middle ground between total lockdown and quarantine easing. 

Thankfully, some systems critically affected by COVID-19 were able to contain transmission rates without committing to a complete shutdown. No system exemplifies this better than Hong Kong.

A new study, published in The Lancet Public Health, reviewed the public health measures implemented to suppress local transmission of coronavirus alongside the virus’s progress within the city of Hong Kong between late January and March 31. 

In that window,  the massive city of 7.5 million people had only 715 confirmed cases and four deaths. Meaning, the virus’s reproduction rate did not rise during the eight-week period.

“We analyzed data on laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases, influenza surveillance data in outpatients of all ages, and influenza hospitalizations in children,” the authors wrote in the new paper. “Our study shows that non-pharmaceutical interventions (including border restrictions, quarantine and isolation, distancing, and changes in population behavior) were associated with the reduced transmission of COVID-19 in Hong Kong, and are also likely to have substantially reduced influenza transmission in early February 2020.’

Impact assessment of non-pharmaceutical interventions against coronavirus disease 2019 and influenza in Hong Kong: an observational study

Although Hong Kong public officials did not initiate shelter in place mandates as strict as ours, they demonstrated effective surveillance techniques, employed contact tracing for infections among incoming travelers and their own community, enforced a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering from mainland China and placed travel curfew on work commuters and students. 

“By quickly implementing public health measures, Hong Kong has demonstrated that COVID-19 transmission can be effectively contained without resorting to the highly disruptive complete lockdown adopted by China, the USA, and Western European countries,” Professor Benjamin Cowling of the University of Hong Kong said in a press statement. “If these measures and population responses can be sustained, while avoiding fatigue among the general population, they could substantially lessen the impact of a local COVID-19 epidemic.”

When surveillance techniques are adopted early on, researchers can cast as wide a net as possible with respect to contraction origins. Hong Kong task forces were able to not only examine confirmed COVID-19 cases, but they were also able to identify all the people who had any contact with these patients one to two days before they developed symptoms.  

In the US, protective measures operating to their full capacities could mitigate a lot of damage projected by academicians after this pandemic has ended. 

For a start, if American Systems could monitor new transmissions accurately as well as publicize the most viable routes of novel infection, workers could gradually repopulate key sectors. This same data set would protect vulnerable health care employees during high-risk situations.

A slow reopen of commercial markets, and routine updates on counter solutions would give volcanologists time to develop targeted therapeutics. 

Right now, the official coronavirus response is influenced by too many voices, which means social distancing is the best way to keep American Recovery rates ahead of transmission rates-but it doesn’t have to be indefinite. 

The citizens of Hong Kong took the necessary precautions seriously, and enjoyed a multitude of benefits as a result.

“The speed of decline in influenza activity in 2020 was quicker than in previous years when only school closures were implemented, suggesting that other social distancing measures and avoidance behaviors have had a substantial additional impact on influenza transmission,” study co-author Dr. Peng Wu said. “Improved testing and hospital capacity to handle novel respiratory pathogens, and a population acutely aware of the need to improve personal hygiene and maintain physical distancing, put them in good stead,” 

CW Headley is a reporter for the Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com