Virus cases in Hong Kong apartments recall SARS memories

HONG KONG (AP) - The diagnosis of four people living in a single Hong Kong apartment block who were sickened by a new virus is prompting worried comparisons with the deadly SARS pandemic of 17 years ago.

Medical workers in full protective suits descended upon the Hong Mei House in Tsing Yi district on Tuesday, swiftly evacuating more than 100 people in 34 households after the four were found infected with the new pathogen from the same family of coronaviruses as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Health officials called it a precautionary measure after a 62-year-old woman diagnosed with the virus Tuesday was found living 10 floors directly below a man who was earlier confirmed with the virus. The woman's son and daughter-in-law who live with her were among seven new cases reported Thursday, raising the city's total tally to 49.

As in 2003, officials suspect the building's plumbing may be to blame.

The 34 households evacuated live vertically above or below the woman and share the same sewage system. A modified toilet drainage pipe in her unit may have helped spread the virus and officials are checking if any other units have made such alternations while they disinfect the building.

Authorities sought to assuage fears of an epidemic, dismissing similarities to the SARS community outbreak at the Amoy Gardens housing estate in 2003. More than 300 people were infected and 42 people died at the time after a defective sewage pipe at the apartment block was believed to have caused the vertical spread of the SARS virus.

While some residents could be seen moving out with their luggage, others who spoke to The Associated Press said they weren't overly worried as long as they maintained good personal hygiene, and that they preferred to stay put rather than risk infection somewhere else.

Most of Hong Kong's 7.4 million people live in such apartments rising dozens of floors above the crowded city.

Personnels wearing protective suits wait near an entrance at the Cheung Hong Estate, a public housing estate during evacuation of residents in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. The Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health evacuated some residents from the public housing estate after two cases of novel coronavirus infection to stop the potential risk of further spread of the virus. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) The Associated Press
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. China's daily death toll from new virus has topped 100 for first time, with more than 1,000 total deaths recorded, the health ministry announced Tuesday, as the spread of the contagion shows little sign of abating while exacting an ever-rising cost. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) The Associated Press
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