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3 charts show why Hong Kong is suffering the deadliest Omicron wave in the world right now

Health workers unload a patient from an ambulance at Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong on March 15, 2022.

Emmanuel Serna/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

  • Hong Kong is wrestling with the deadliest COVID-19 wave in the world right now, per capita.
  • Most elderly adults in Hong Kong are unvaccinated due to a combination of confusion and mistrust.
  • Nursing homes have become hotbeds for Omicron transmission.

After two years of holding back the coronavirus near-perfectly, Hong Kong is suffering a brutally punishing wave of new Omicron infections — the deadliest in the world right now, per capita.

“We have about 30,000 [new] cases a day,” Dr. Edwin Tsui, Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection controller, said on Wednesday during a news conference. 

Though Omicron infections are also rising in other spots around the globe that have held the virus at bay until now (like New Zealand) Hong Kong is in the uniquely painful position of having very few of its elderly adults fully vaccinated. That is a big part of the reason why the per capita death rate in Hong Kong is so high right now.

Since late December, when local transmission of Omicron began in Hong Kong, 4,634 people have died. Previously, only 213 people in Hong Kong had died from COVID-19 in all of 2020 and 2021 combined.

This wave, which began in February, 89% of deaths have been among people who did not receive two doses of a vaccine, and most of the deaths have been in unvaccinated victims 60 and up.

Older people in Hong Kong have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the world

Just 36% of Hong Kong residents over the age of 80 have had two doses of a vaccine from either Pfizer or Sinovac. The vaccination rate among younger people in Hong Kong is far higher, with more than 88% of people aged 20-59 years old receiving two doses so far.  

Reasons for the low vaccination rate among the elderly include fear, confusion over whether the vaccines are safe for people with preexisting conditions, and mistrust of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

“The government has never truly taken consideration of the elderly in every single measure and policy it has carried out since the start of the pandemic,” unvaccinated 72-year-old Sit Pui-yu told the South China Morning Post. 

Terry Lum, a professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong, told the New York Times the government has not moved swiftly to shut down misinformation. “When that misinformation is circulating and no one comes out to clarify the information, and we have such low cases, the people wonder, ‘Why would I take the risk?'” Lum said.

Hong Kong’s lagging elderly vaccination rates are outliers compared to the rest of the world, where the older you are, the more likely it is you’ve been fully vaccinated.

In the US, more than 85% of people over the age of 75 are fully vaccinated, while in the UK  96% of seniors over the age of 80 have had two shots. Those higher than average vaccination rates among elders reflect the recognition that elderly adults are some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19’s nastiest consequences, including death.

The virus is spreading through nursing homes

With the Omicron variant able to spread more quickly and more easily than previous versions of the virus did, unvaccinated elders in Hong Kong are at greater risk now than ever before. 

“Some care homes have seen all residents infected, according to my understanding,” Elderly Commission chairman Dr. Lam Ching-choi told the South China Morning Post earlier this month. “Very unfortunately, the death rate among the elderly will continue to rise as we currently do not have enough resources – from hospital beds and isolation facilities to medication.”

Hong Kong has hurried in recent weeks to rush the construction of several makeshift hospitals and patient isolation facilities, with bed locations including a cruise ship terminal, a gym, and an unincorporated patch of land that sits next to mainland China. Hundred of healthcare workers are also being brought over from the mainland to help with the surge. 

—Hong Kong SAR Government News (@newsgovhk) March 16, 2022

Professor Lau Yu-lung, a government adviser on vaccines, said even elderly patients with symptoms should go ahead and get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

“We can vaccinate them as long as they don’t have a fever, since all elderly people have coughs,” he told the Post. 

isolation trailers for covid patients in hong kongWorkers wearing personal protective equipment clean next to cabins at a temporary isolation facility housing COVID-19 patients in the San Tin area of Hong Kong on March 16, 2022.

Dale de la Rey/AFP via Getty Images

On February 24, Hong Kong also issued a new vaccine pass requirement for anyone over the age of 12 entering public spaces, including gyms, hair salons, supermarkets, mahjong parlors, and malls. 

Walter Cheung Shu-wai told the Post that his 94-year-old mother received her first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine last week, and she had no noticeable side effects. 

“Our family had been thinking about it for more than half a year. We see that the epidemic is getting more and more serious since the fifth wave of infections, and it would be risky if my mother gets infected,” he said. “I guess we all need to calculate the risk.”

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