“I think the worst thing is not knowing when I will be able to get out,” he said. “You almost feel like you’re back in school, with controlled wake and sleep times,[and]not being able to control what you eat.”
Chan said he was fully vaccinated with a booster shot and tested negative for Covid-19 several times before his flight. He was mentally prepared for the quarantine, but not for what happened next, he said.
On arrival in Hong Kong, Chan took a mandatory COVID-19 test and waited for hours at the airport. His result was determined to be “preliminary positive,” meaning he needed to take another test. He was then moved to a cordoned-off area with a makeshift bed.
“It was definitely a shell shock,” Chan said. “After taking so many tests the week before my flight, and they all came back negative… I never thought I’d actually test positive upon arrival.”
About 13 hours after the plane landed, Chan was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital for further investigation. He was later confirmed to have the Omicron version, although he remained asymptomatic.
“(I have) a sense of dread, where you go, ‘Oh my god, what’s going to happen now?'” he said. “I definitely felt quite trapped … you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to go back on a flight and go somewhere else.’ You’re really stuck there, so it was quite a scary feeling.”
It’s not just travelers who face indefinite hospitalization if they test positive for Covid-19 in Hong Kong.
In recent days, Hong Kong has identified several omicron cases in clusters linked to aircrew – breaking a nearly three-month streak of locally transmitted COVID infections. Those who confirmed the infected have also been sent to the hospital.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people, including over 20 restaurant employees with close contacts of positive cases, have been sent to the government camp for 21 days of isolation and extensive testing. Any positive result would mean transfer to the hospital.
Anyone who appeared in the same premises as positive cases at almost the same time as the positive cases in recent days has also been ordered to be tested, while several residential buildings linked to the cluster have been temporarily closed for mass testing. has since been closed.
As fears of local Omicron transmission grow, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that resumption of normal travel between the city and mainland China will “have to wait another one.”
Just before the cluster emerged, Lam reaffirmed Hong Kong’s zero-Covid stance.
“Hong Kong is taking very strict measures to prevent importation of cases with a view to maintaining zero local infection,” it said in a statement on December 28. “In the face of a gruesome attack from Omicron, we need to be even more vigilant.”
stuck in hospital
According to Hong Kong authorities, the minimum isolation period for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 – even if they are asymptomatic – is around one month. They must stay in the hospital for at least 10 days and are not allowed to leave until they test negative twice in a row – no matter how long it takes.
But coming negative twice does not mean that you can go home. After that, they are shifted to an isolation facility for another 14 days under orders of confinement.
Upon arrival at the hospital, Chan was placed in an isolation ward along with two other passengers who tested positive, also with Omicron. He is confined to his room for 24 hours without fresh air or outdoor exercise.
His day follows the routine prescribed by the hospital. At 8 a.m., he is woken up by a jingle and an announcement on the public address system that reminds him to reminisce about his own life.
They get food provided by the hospital at fixed times. Meanwhile, he spends his day connecting with family and friends on social media and watching Netflix.
“I would say that maybe early or mid-afternoon was the hardest time of the day,” he said. “In the morning, you check your email or social media. But by lunchtime, when you go, ‘I really don’t know what I’m going to do.'”
While he said his doctors were professionals, they could not tell him when he might be discharged. “It all depends on when I stop testing positive, and then they start the final countdown from that point,” he said.
the 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 comparable size elsewhere in the world.
Uptake has been particularly low in the elderly, a group thought to be at highest risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
In a statement on 29 December, the Hong Kong government reiterated its stringent measures for staying here – including its own mass quarantine facility.
“Recently, the global pandemic situation has worsened significantly due to the Omicron version,” the statement said. “Government has to be vigilant to prevent epidemic or outbreak of fifth wave in the community. After reviewing the overall and prudent situation, Government considers it necessary to reserve all the rooms in PBQC. [Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre] To fulfill the quarantine purpose.”
“In general, there is an increased sense of isolation, anxiety and, in some severe cases, even post-traumatic stress,” said Hong Kong psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Wong.
However, there are tips for maintaining good mental health, she said.
“There are some tricks you can do, like making sure you schedule your day fairly clearly,” Wong said. “So you have rest time and work time … and, as much as possible, incorporate some sort of exercise within the day.”
He said that instead of seeing the quarantine as a punishment, those going through the experience may also see it as an act of philanthropy. “You are doing something good for the society,” she said.
But as his period of indefinite isolation grows longer, Chan said he is concerned about his mental health.
“I’m trying to rationalize it, going through the processes I think, knowing that there are some things you can and can’t change… over time,” he said.
“The best part of it, I think, is being able to see things from a different perspective,” he said. “(I’m) trying to turn it into something useful, something interesting. Hopefully one day looking back and remembering the time I sat in a hospital room for X days.”
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