Across Asia, spike in virus cases follows Lunar New Year


SINGAPORE — Many Asian countries are facing a spike in COVID-19 infections after the widely celebrated Lunar New Year holiday, as health officials grapple with the highly transmissible omicron variant and expect that the numbers continue to rise in the coming weeks.

Lunar New Year, which is China’s biggest holiday, was celebrated across Asia on February 1, even though pandemic restrictions in many countries have kept crowds and family outings to a minimum.

Hong Kong authorities are facing record cases that are straining its so-called “zero-COVID” policy. On Monday, the city reported a new high of 614 local infections.

“We expect there will be more cases in a few days. We see this as post-event effects and holiday clusters,” Edwin Tsui, an official with the Center for Health Protection, told reporters on Monday.

“With our current containment measures, we hope to still be able to contain the disease.”

Hong Kong currently requires all cases to be hospitalized. On Monday, authorities announced that close contacts of infected people will be allowed to self-isolate at home, starting Tuesday. Those who test positive while in home isolation will be transferred to a hospital.

Hong Kong has aligned itself with China’s “zero-COVID” policy which aims to totally eradicate epidemics, even as many other countries change their approach to living with the virus. Authorities are seeking to impose lockdowns on residential buildings wherever clusters of infections are identified and have banned public dining after 6 p.m.

In Singapore, a dramatic rise in coronavirus infections followed last week’s holiday, with cases tripling to 13,000 on Friday.

Daily infections have since fallen to 7,752 on Sunday, amid restrictions that include limited capacity for restaurants and caps on the number of unique visitors to each household.

Singapore has reported more than 100,000 cases in the past month, although more than 99% of cases are mild or asymptomatic.

Across Asia, authorities face a similar pattern as the more easily transmitted omicron becomes dominant, even though health officials in several countries report that omicron surges do not lead to hospitalizations or deaths as high as the previous delta variant.

In Japan, nearly 90,000 new cases nationwide were reported on Sunday, including 17,526 in Tokyo, with local omicron infections showing no signs of abating.

Experts say infections are now spreading to vulnerable older people who are beginning to fill more hospital beds. Less than 5% of the country’s population has received their third dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

The number of local outbreaks is similarly rising in Indonesia, approaching the number of cases that marked the peak of last year’s devastating Delta outbreak.

On January 6, Indonesia recorded 533 new cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths. A month later, on Sunday, the daily figure had risen to 36,057. Daily deaths also climbed to 57, nearly four times the rate of a week ago.

In Thailand, authorities reported more than 10,000 daily cases for the third consecutive day on Monday, but the Department of Disease Control said the number of seriously ill patients was falling, while the death rate remained stable.

Department chief Opas Karnkawinpong said Thailand may consider easing some of the country’s pandemic restrictions as the omicron variant appeared to be less severe.

“The global COVID-19 situation seems to be moving in the same direction,” he told the Bangkok Post. “Many countries have started easing measures despite spikes in daily infections.”

In other countries where the Lunar New Year is a major holiday, governments are also on high alert ahead of expectations that omicron will continue to fuel higher infections.

New cases in Malaysia have risen, with the health ministry reporting 11,034 on Monday. The increase came after the Lunar New Year when many Malaysians travel, but health officials said most cases were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms.

Senior health official Noor Hisham Abdullah warned that daily cases could double by the end of March and urged Malaysians to take their booster dose. Some 98% of adults in the country have completed their vaccinations and half of them have received their third shot.

In South Korea, health experts warn the country could see daily jumps of 130,000 or 170,000 by the end of February.

The country has reported 38,691 new cases of the virus, a nine-fold increase from levels seen in mid-January, when omicron became the country’s dominant strain.

In Vietnam, authorities have warned that infections could rise after the popular New Year holiday.

Vietnam has reported 192 cases of the omicron variant in the past month, most of them showing only mild symptoms or no symptoms. With low hospitalization and death rates, Vietnam had previously moved towards resuming most social activities.

The Philippines moved to ease coronavirus restrictions and open its doors to tourists as the number of outbreaks fell to around 8,300 on Sunday from a peak of 39,000 in mid-January.

But social distancing restrictions remain in place amid fears of an outbreak ahead of the country’s presidential and general elections on May 9. The campaign begins on Tuesday, with a ban in place on handshakes, kisses, hugs and large crowds.

In mainland China, new local infections continue to fluctuate, falling to nine on Friday but rising to 45 on Monday, most in the southern region of Guangxi.

Recent cases have included a handful of omicron infections, although those outbreaks have been tightly contained. Chinese authorities imposed strict local lockdowns and mass testing as the country kicked off the Winter Olympics in Beijing last week.

Meanwhile, the remote Pacific archipelago nation of Tonga is trying to contain its first outbreak since the start of the global pandemic, which could have been caused by the delivery of emergency medical supplies and water after volcanic eruption and tsunami last month.

Two Tongan men who worked handling shipments tested positive last week. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said two more positive cases had been confirmed, bringing the total number of active cases to seven.

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Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, Jim Gomez in Manila, Hau Dinh in Hanoi, David Rising in Bangkok, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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