Health authorities finally abandon zero-Covid policy

Local authorities have finally abandoned the national policy of “dynamic covid-zero” following the new measures announced yesterday by the China State Council and the National Health Commission.

The new measures have an immediate effect on existing prevention and control measures, reducing the need for a high quantity of nucleic acid tests (NATs) as well as isolation of all positive cases and follow-up on close contacts, authorities announced yesterday during a specially arranged press conference with the Novel Coronavirus Response and Coordination Center.

Acknowledging that it is likely that the number of Covid-19 cases will exponentially increase with the new measures, the Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture, Elsie Ao Ieong, said that following the guidelines issued by the central authorities, Macau will now learn how to co-exist with the virus following the experiences of other places around the world.

Ao Ieong also noted that it is estimated that between 50% and 80% of the population of Macau could eventually be infected with the virus. Therefore, the role of authorities is to control the growing numbers of infections to prevent severe spikes from causing major disruption to health care services and the city’s normal activities.

“We hope we can reduce the number of serious cases and especially the deadly ones,” the official said, noting that Macau has achieved a vaccination rate in excess of 90%.

“From this weekend, we will launch a series of measures including accelerating the promotion of the vaccination of the elderly and young children and the distribution of packs to provide essential medicines, tests, and masks. We will start this distribution over the weekend, starting with more vulnerable groups. We are hoping to have covered the whole population within two weeks,” she explained.

The measures include a phased reduction of NATs and replacing these with Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) for those needing to undergo testing on regular basis. The number of tests necessary for those arriving in Macau from the mainland will also be reduced.

Adjustments to border restrictions with Hong Kong as well as Taiwan and other countries are also included, although the details have yet to be announced. The Secretary said that “this would not have an immediate effect, but will be done gradually.”

The director of the Health Bureau (SSM), Alvis Lo, also noted at the press conference that from Monday (December 12), new measures related to home quarantine for close contacts and asymptomatic cases will be implemented.

The SSM will put an online platform into operation for people in Macau to report their status following a positive RAT report.

This platform will serve as a mode of triage for health authorities to follow up on the cases – especially those who report symptoms and need to be followed closely.

According to Lo, it is expected that when fully enacted, the home quarantine measures can potentially cover 90% of the population, with only 10% likely to need medical treatment. For these, the SSM has already prepared 600 beds in SSM facilities as well as another 6,000 in quarantine hotels.

Key work groups’ situation untangled

After some major confusion yesterday following an announcement from the Novel Coronavirus Response and Coordination Center on Wednesday regarding significant changes to the NAT rules for key work groups, yesterday the Center made another U-turn and again changed the rules following the 10 new principles for Covid-19 prevention and control issued by the central authorities.

From now on, key work groups will have to undergo testing every three days. This test can be either NAT or RAT and the type of test will be a decision for each company, Lo confirmed in response to an inquiry from the Times.

On Wednesday, internal information communicated by the services to employers established significantly more restrictive rules that require the majority of these workers to go from one weekly NAT every seven days, to four NATs every two days and three RAT on the interval days between each NAT.

The measure, having been in force for less than 24 hours, nonetheless caused major disruption at the more popular NAT stations like the Kiang Wu Hospital, which hit full NAT capacity yesterday.

20% of students and teachers to be tested at schools

To avoid a major outbreak in schools, 20% of all students and teachers of all schools in Macau will be subjected to testing via RAT, the director of the Education and Youth Development Bureau, Kong Chi Meng, informed during the press conference.

Kong explained that the idea is to avoid testing the entire school population at all times while still maintaining regular and frequent data on schools to inform decisions on whether to enforce other measures if required.

The measure applies to all non-tertiary education institutions and will result in daily tests, starting Monday (December 12) targeting a control group of 20% of the school population.

This testing will be done through free RAT kits that have already been supplied to the schools.

“According to the results and number of positive cases that we find, we will decide if there is the need for class suspension or other measures,” Kong explained.

Few adjustments to border measures for now

Although officials have confirmed that the new rules include an alleviation of some of the measures enforced regarding entry in Macau for people arriving from all locations, only slight adjustments have been made for now to the requirements on those coming from the mainland from places other than Zhuhai, and those coming from Hong Kong, Taiwan or foreign countries.

The first set of adjusted measures will extend the validity period of NATs needed to enter Macau from 24 hours to 48 hours (except Zhuhai which continues to be 24 hours), while those coming from abroad will still comply with a “5+3” quarantine measure. However, instead of having a red health code for the three days, the health code will now be yellow until a negative NAT result obtained on the eighth day after arriving in Macau unlocks the green code.

Regarding this first set of measures, Ao Ieong said, “we need to align with China’s policies,” and that further opening of the borders with Hong Kong will “happen soon.”

Addressing the mandatory three-day quarantine in force in Hong Kong for those returning to Macau via the city, Ao Ieong said that negotiations are ongoing. However, she said that the goal is to standardize all quarantine and border rules between the three places (Macau, Hong Kong, and the mainland). She further noted that this is the ultimate goal to be achieved very soon, and for this reason it was not worthwhile negotiating the requirements for each location separately; rather, they would be done all at once. RM

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