Arrange virus test for all 6,000 domestic helpers living in boarding houses, Hong Kong health expert says

Domestic helpers spend their day off. Photo via Hong Kong government Information Services Department
Domestic helpers spend their day off. Photo via Hong Kong government Information Services Department

A public health expert in Hong Kong is calling on authorities to carry out widespread COVID-19 testing for domestic helpers living in boarding houses.

H0 Pak-leung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, made the appeal during an interview with RTHK  Thursday, following news yesterday that a domestic helper who stayed at two boarding houses has tested positive for the virus.

The 37-year-old Indonesian worker lived at the two agency-arranged facilities after leaving her employer on July 20. She stayed first at a boarding house in Wan Chai and later at one in Causeway Bay before starting at another family’s home this month.

She came into contact with 32 other domestic helpers in that period, 28 of whom have since moved into their new employers’ homes. The worker developed a fever on August 1.

Read more: Migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong experienced more discrimination during COVID-19 outbreak: Survey

Around 6,000 domestic helpers are living at boarding houses arranged by their agencies while in between employers, according to the Association of Hong Kong Manpower Agencies. About eight to ten usually share a room that could be as small as 300 square feet.

“There’s a chance that the source [of the infection] could be the boarding houses. If the helpers [at those houses] often go in and out… the transmission could have already happened,” Ho said.

He added that there have been 61 cases of domestic helpers testing positive for the virus since the outbreak began. Most were recent returnees from their home countries while 11 are classed as local infections—all of which were traced back to other patients.

This is the first case a domestic worker’s infection is of an unknown source.

If authorities don’t act quickly to carry out testing for domestic workers living in the dorms, the transmission could “become very widespread,” Ho said, comparing the potential situation to the outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories in Singapore.

Ho said that the government should consider the “worst case scenario” that the virus is already spreading in the dorms, and to quickly carry out testing to prevent the transmission from “becoming very widespread.”

He estimated that if the authorities mobilize their resources and work closely with the employment agencies offering accommodation for domestic helpers, that the testing could be complete in one or two days.

According to reports, Hong Kong confirmed another 90 coronavirus cases Thursday, bringing the total number of infections in the city to over 3,800.

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