Asia Today: Hong Kong lengthens quarantines for 16 countries

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong will tighten entry restrictions for travelers arriving from the United States and 15 other countries beginning Friday, extending the quarantine period to 21 days.

Previously, the 15 countries, which also include Malaysia, Thailand, France and the Netherlands, were classified as medium-risk, with travelers able to stay only seven days of quarantine if they were fully vaccinated and tested positive for antibodies prior to leaving for the city.

A resurgence of coronavirus cases in these countries due to the delta variant led the to be recategorized as high high-risk and stricter measures imposed, as the government sought to “uphold the local barrier against the importation of COVID-19,” it said in a statement.

The changes come after a domestic worker who had returned to Hong Kong from the U.S. earlier this month tested positive for the coronavirus, despite receiving two shots of vaccine and testing positive for antibodies.

The mandatory quarantine period was extended from seven to 14 days for fully vaccinated travelers with a positive antibody test arriving from Australia, now categorized as medium-risk. Quarantine requirements for New Zealand, which is the only country considered low-risk, remain at seven days for fully-vaccinated passengers.

Hong Kong’s “zero-COVID” strategy has seen authorities impose strict border restrictions and ban flights from extremely high-risk countries, in the hopes that no local community spread would allow it to re-open borders with mainland China.

The city had nearly two months of no cases within the local community, but its streak was broken earlier this month when a 43-year-old construction worker with no travel history was found to have antibodies in his blood despite not being vaccinated -– indicating that he was probably infected some time ago.

Hong Kong has recorded a total of 12,037 coronavirus infections since the pandemic began, with 212 deaths.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Also Tuesday, Australia’s most populous state reported its third-highest number of daily infections of the pandemic, but the government leader said the spread of the delta variant in Sydney, the country’s largest city, had not yet peaked. There were 452 new infections recorded in New South Wales, down from 475 on Monday and 466 on Saturday. An unvaccinated woman aged in her 70s had died in a Sydney hospital on Monday, bringing the death toll from the outbreak discovered in mid-June to 53. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she expected daily infections counts to remain high. “We are assuming that case numbers will go up. Now, I say that only as a realist because when you have cumulative days of high case numbers, there is a tipping point where case numbers go up,” Berejiklian said. “But our challenge is to make sure that we keep vaccination rates up,” she added. About half of New South Wales’s population has had at least one injection of the two-shot Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine. The government wants 80% of the population fully vaccinated before it eases Sydney’s lockdown, which began on June 26.

New Zealand is going into a strict lockdown for at least three days after announcing Tuesday it had found its first case of community transmission since February. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern invoked some of the stirring rhetoric she used early in the pandemic by urging the full population to go hard and early in trying to eliminate the latest outbreak. She said Auckland, where the infected man lives, and Coromandel, where he had visited, would go into a full lockdown for seven days and the remainder of the country for three days while health experts tried to find the source of his infection. Ardern had been warning that the contagiousness of the delta variant would likely require more drastic action than previous outbreaks. It’s not known if the man is infected with the delta variant but they are assuming he does.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga officially expanded and extended the nation’s coronavirus state of emergency on Tuesday, as government advisers recommended legal changes that would allow penalties for violations. The measures, approved by a government task force, add seven prefectures to the six areas already under a state of emergency and extend it to Sept. 12. Ten other prefectures were put under a “quasi-emergency,” which had previously encompassed six prefectures, bringing about two-thirds of the nation under some form of emergency. The government has taken pride in avoiding compulsory measures or a lockdown, but some experts and critics are wondering if voluntary measures are enough. Shigeru Omi, the nation’s top medical adviser, said the task force is considering legal changes which are needed to institute penalties or declare a lockdown.