I Saw Firsthand What It Takes to Keep COVID Out of Hong Kong. It Felt Like a Different Planet.
Caroline Chen (ProPublica) 11 January 2022
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
On a visit to Hong Kong, ProPublica reporter Caroline Chen encountered a 21-day quarantine, a bevy of COVID tests, universal masking and, finally, a fear-free family holiday.
As I walked off the jet bridge into Hong Kong International Airport, I stepped into another world. I was home for Christmas, to see my parents for the first time in two years. But first, I had to get through a gantlet of COVID-19 precautions that envelop the city like a protective bubble.
Incoming travellers were greeted by gowned, gloved and masked workers, who directed us through the terminal. As I followed the passengers ahead of me, I was unnerved by the shuttered stores. Every other time I’ve flown in and out of Hong Kong, the airport hums with thousands of travellers, children scampering across the polished floors, announcements intoned in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. The terminal was now eerily still. My feet made too much noise as I trudged along the path marked by guardrails.
A PPE-covered worker sent me to a series of stations. First, I pulled my mask down for a nurse to swab my nose and throat for a PCR test. Then I presented my documents — pre-flight negative COVID-19 test, proof of hotel booking, Hong Kong resident ID and vaccination card — to an officer who scrutinized them before declaring me up to par. The worker at the next station checked for a functioning phone, test-dialling my U.S. number. Then I was presented with a sandwich and water bottle and directed to a waiting area with chairs and desks placed in a grid as though ready for an exam. I checked my lanyard to find my seat: G205.
As I waited for my COVID-19 test results, I could see the sky through the arched windows turning bright, revealing a beautiful, cloudless December morning. I texted my parents: “Landed!” They responded with clapping emoji. I would see them in 21 days.
Sitting in the cavernous space, I suddenly felt so far from the previous day, when I checked on the chard and radishes growing in my California garden and took a walk with my friend and her new puppy. For all the caution I had taken to reduce exposure in the interminable months since March 2020, that all felt like child’s play compared with the Compulsory Quarantine Order in my hand, which reminded me that I, Chen Caroline Yi Ling, was required, with immediate effect, to be quarantined in my hotel room at the Crowne Plaza as ordered by Yau Yuet-ming Lannon, an authorized officer of the Regulation, until Dec. 20, 2021, at 11:59 p.m. I flipped through the booklet of instructions for the three weeks of hotel quarantine. On Page 4, bold letters declared: “Warning: Leaving the room will be treated as breaching of the quarantine order. Offenders will be referred to the police without prior warning. Breaching the quarantine order is a criminal offence and offenders are subject to a maximum fine of HK $25,000 and imprisonment for six months.”
It felt like a different planet.
Hong Kong’s quarantine procedures are among the strictest in the world. The city is committed to a “zero-COVID” policy, which means it will take every possible measure to prevent a single case. Its policies for travelers have become progressively stringent. In December 2020, concerned about the B.1.1.7 (alpha) variant, the government increased the quarantine period for travelers from the United Kingdom to 21 days “so as to ensure that no case would slip through the net even under very exceptional cases where the incubation period of the virus is longer than 14 days.” Concerned about the delta variant, 15 countries including the U.S. were added to the “high-risk” category in August of last year, even though local scientists said the additional week was unnecessary and extreme. As it turns out, I arrived just before another change: With the emergence of the omicron variant, travelers from the United States were required to spend four days in government quarantine facilities — spartan temporary housing in an isolated corner of one of Hong Kong’s islands — before being released to a hotel of their choice for the remaining 17 days.
I was spared that fate, thankfully. Once my airport test registered negative, I was released to a shuttle that dropped me off at my hotel. A PPE-shrouded employee sent me up the service elevator to my room on the 21st floor. It would be my home for the next three weeks. Continue Reading… 
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