Home / Science / News /  Overwhelmed by Omicron, Hong Kong runs out of space for its dead
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People are dying from Covid-19 in Hong Kong at a rate that surpasses most of the world’s worst pandemic peaks, with almost 300 deaths a day overwhelming the city’s ability to cope.

Officials have deployed makeshift refrigerators to store bagged bodies that had been piling up in the crowded corridors of public hospitals. Crematoria work around the clock and coffins are running short. Authorities have placed 50 repurposed storage containers in a parking deck near an overflowing public mortuary to house 2,300 bodies.

Because victims died from an infectious disease, grieving relatives are unable to claim their dead to dress and embalm them for funerals, where traditionally they are laid out in open caskets so mourners can pay their respects.

“The deaths are sudden, which makes it hard for their families to accept," said Alan Leung, a funeral-logistics director who has seen business stretched by short supplies and employee absences from Covid. “And you have to tell them they can’t take one last look, so there’s even more anxiety around that."

The city’s average daily Covid death rate in the week ended Tuesday was 37.64 per million residents. That is higher than peaks recorded in hot spots such as Spain and the U.K. earlier in the pandemic, and three times the U.S. peak, hit in early 2021, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.

Hong Kong has recorded almost 5,000 fatalities since Dec. 31, after registering just over 200 in the first two years of the pandemic.

“To be very honest, it’s uncontained," said Siddharth Sridhar, a clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s been a very, very sharp peak. It’s almost like a needle."

The city’s large population of unvaccinated elderly is feeling it most sharply: 87% of the people who have died in the current wave were 70 or older and almost three-fourths were unvaccinated.

The crisis has forced Hong Kong officials to shift their focus to protecting the elderly and reducing deaths and severe illness, putting on hold a policy of isolating all positive cases and delaying a plan for citywide testing. On Thursday, the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, suggested the government may soon begin to roll back travel and social restrictions.

Authorities are constructing a temporary morgue for 800 bodies and shipping in coffins from mainland China. Hong Kong is also building a 1,000-bed hospital on its border with the mainland city of Shenzhen.

The city’s health department said the number of bodies handled by public mortuaries is rapidly increasing, and despite tripling capacity, temporary storage is needed. Officials would work with the funeral industry to simplify the process for family members to claim remains, it said.

Criticism of the government’s lack of readiness for the Omicron outbreak is reaching a crescendo from all corners of society, including many pro-Beijing politicians. Some say the government focused too heavily on aggressive quarantine measures at the expense of efforts to vaccinate vulnerable residents. Mrs. Lam has acknowledged that Hong Kong’s vaccination rate was too low going into the Omicron wave.

Cherry Au’s father, a 69-year-old retailer, died on March 2 after testing positive for Covid-19. She said she was angry that authorities failed to learn the lessons of Omicron surges elsewhere in the world and didn’t prepare for the highly contagious variant, and that hospitals are overburdened.

Ms. Au was initially told her father could be cremated on March 20 or 27, but she still hasn’t been allotted a date.

“I feel helpless," she said, while expressing sympathy for crematoria staff. “It’s already arduous for them, working 24 hours a day."

Beijing has taken an expansive role in recent weeks, drawing frequent expressions of gratitude from city officials. On Wednesday, Mrs. Lam greeted hundreds of newly arrived mainland medics. They joined teams of mainland health experts, as well as construction workers sent to help build new quarantine centers.

Experts say it is too late to avert the worst, as the wave has already peaked. University of Hong Kong researchers said this week an estimated 3.6 million people—almost half the city’s population—have already been infected.

The speed and ferocity of the outbreak serves as a warning to China, which like Hong Kong has a vaccination rate among its elderly that lags behind that for the general population. Chinese authorities are fighting several Omicron outbreaks across the country.

In Hong Kong, the number of reported deaths has exceeded the number of patients in intensive-care units. The site of some of the worst scenes of the outbreak has been Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in the Kowloon district. Images circulating on social media over the past week showed elderly patients lying in gurneys alongside body bags containing Covid-19 victims.

A nurse at the hospital said such scenes were common for weeks as elderly patients died in the hospital’s emergency department, though the situation has improved recently.

“Every shift, even when I would go home and lay in my bed, I would just recall the smell of it," the nurse said. “It’s horrible."

Sara Ho, a manager at the agency that oversees Hong Kong’s public hospitals, last week said officials have since set up temporary locations within hospitals to store bodies away from patients.

Some residents of care homes reported that sick residents were dying before they could be admitted to hospitals, said Stephanie Law, who helps lead a trade group for the elder-care industry.

Funerals have become simple and hasty affairs. With small chapels attached to hospitals closed, people have around 15 minutes to hold farewell ceremonies in open spaces by the entrance of mortuaries, said Mr. Leung, the funeral-logistics manager.

A seven-day lockdown of Shenzhen, triggered by an outbreak in that mainland manufacturing hub, is squeezing supplies including caskets, said Ng Yiu-tong, permanent president of the Funeral Business Association.

“From the deaths to issuing certificates to getting a slot at the crematorium, there are clogs at every juncture," Mr. Ng said.

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