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Airline crew members walk through the departure hall at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong on Nov. 29, 2021.
Airline crew members walk through the departure hall at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong on Nov. 29, 2021. (Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg)

Hong Kong has moved more than 30 countries into its high-risk category in the past 10 days due to omicron, making travelers from these places spend 21 days in mandatory quarantine.

Getting a reprieve is a tiny tropical island that saw its first-ever COVID-19 case just two days ago. Cook Islands detected its first infection on Saturday, and Hong Kong moved the locale to the high-risk category a day later. But the city on Monday reversed course for Cook Islands and Luxembourg, citing updated information from relevant authorities that neither have yet seen an omicron case.

Still, the initial designation underscores a knee-jerk approach that’s coming under growing criticism. Added Monday to the high-risk category were Maldives, Senegal and Tunisia. They joined the likes of Mexico, Chile and Romania.

Rival Asian financial hub Singapore was also put into the 21-day category. It has been reporting thousands of cases for weeks but stayed in Hong Kong’s medium-risk category that requires 14 days of quarantine — until last week, when two omicron cases were found among transit travelers. Only Hong Kong residents are allowed to travel from these places, with visitors banned, and they must undergo three weeks of quarantine in a venue from a government-designated list.

The intensifying stringency of Hong Kong’s approach is out of sync with the global trend and signals the eagerness of the local government to align itself with China’s strict COVID-zero policies in hopes of reopening the mainland border, the city’s main economic lifeline.

Hong Kong’s 21-day quarantine policy is even more aggressive than what’s practiced in some areas in China; researchers associated with the Guangdong Provincial Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention said in a study on COVID data prior to omicron that isolation mandates longer than 14 days are likely “an overreaction” to the threat.

Hong Kong has rapidly added more countries to the high-risk group in the past 10 days as omicron, the most differentiated mutation discovered so far, rapidly emerged across the world after first being detected in southern Africa on Nov. 24.

Since the hotels manage their own inventory and set their own prices, the changes have caused chaos among travelers gearing up for the holiday season as rooms were already in short supply even before the quarantine extension for some countries.

The omicron-related travel tightening is a “preventive measure,” according to a Nov. 29 statement from the Hong Kong government. As it has been detected in various places around the world, the city needs “to stay vigilant,” it said.

Quarantines for 21 or 28 days “are probably an overreaction to the risk,” according to Chinese researchers affiliated with Guangdong Provincial Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention, in a study published on Dec. 2.

The research studied inbound travelers into Guangdong province from May 2020 to March 2021 and found that of the 1,868 imported COVID infections, only 33 tested positive after 14 days’ quarantine and three developed symptoms. The paper’s research scope didn’t cover the recently found omicron variant.

Hong Kong’s quarantine regime had been one of the world’s strictest even before omicron emerged. But the new highly transmissible variant unnerved local policy makers even more after it spread from one traveler to another via a hallway in a local quarantine hotel.

Omicron, with an “unprecedented” number of mutations in the spike protein, has raised concern that it could evade vaccine-induced protection, worsen a surge in COVID cases and frustrate efforts to reopen economies.

Some 450 researchers around the world have begun urgent studies to understand the extent to which omicron’s mutations may affect vaccine effectiveness and increase its transmissibility, a World Health Organization scientist said last week.

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